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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: History’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Mystery

By Tom Morrow

The most infamous killer in history, after 130 years, is still unknown. His (or her) identity has remained a mystery since 1888.

“Jack the Ripper” is the best-known name for the serial killer generally believed to have been active in the largely impoverished areas in and around the Whitechapel district of London.

The name “Jack the Ripper” originated in a letter written by someone claiming to be the murderer. In turn, the moniker was disseminated in the media. The letter is widely believed to have been a hoax and may have been written by journalists in an attempt to heighten interest in the story and increase their newspapers’ circulation. In both the criminal case files and contemporary journalistic accounts, the killer also was called “the Whitechapel Murderer” and “Leather Apron” Nonetheless, whenever a serial killer is at large in the western world, the name “Jack” the Ripper” emerges in newspaper headlines. A number of movies have been made around the world.

“Jack” has garnered more newspaper stories, headlines and books, not to mention movies, for the past 130 years. The case remains open at London’s Scotland Yard and hundreds of people over the past century have tried the solve the mystery: just who was “Jack the Ripper?”

Attacks ascribed to “Jack” the Ripper” typically involved female prostitutes who lived and worked in the slums of the East End of London. Their throats were cut prior to abdominal mutilations and disembowelment.

The removal of internal organs from at least three of the victims led to the supposition their killer had some anatomical or surgical knowledge. Rumors that the murders were connected intensified in September and October 1888, and letters were received by media outlets and Scotland Yard from a writer or writers purporting to be the murderer.

The concentration of the killings around weekends and public holidays and within a few streets of each other has indicated to many that the “Ripper” was in regular employment and lived locally. Others have thought that the killer was an educated upper-class man, possibly a doctor or an aristocrat who ventured into Whitechapel from a more well-to-do area. One speculation had a member of Queen Victoria’s Royal family involved.

Extensive newspaper coverage bestowed widespread and enduring international notoriety on the “Ripper”, and the legend solidified. A police investigation into a series of 11 brutal killings in Whitechapel up to 1891, was unable to connect all the killings conclusively to the murders of 1888.

The original five “Ripper” victims are Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.

Mythical theories draw on cultural perceptions such as fear of the medical profession, mistrust of modern science, or the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Suspects proposed years after the murders include virtually anyone remotely connected to the case by contemporary documents, as well as many famous names who were never considered in the police investigation.

There are many and varied theories about the identity and profession of “Jack the Ripper,” but authorities are not agreed upon any of them, and the number of named suspects reaches over one hundred.

The nature of the murders and of the victims drew attention to the poor living conditions in the East End and galvanized public opinion against the overcrowded, unsanitary slums. In the two decades after the murders, the worst of the slums were cleared and demolished, but the streets and some buildings survive and the legend of the “Ripper” is still promoted by guided tours of the murder sites. The Ten Bells public house (saloon) in Commercial Street was frequented by at least one of the victims and was the focus of such tours for many years. In 2015, “Jack the Ripper” Museum” opened in east London.

In addition to the contradictions and unreliability of contemporary accounts, attempts to identify the real killer are hampered by the lack of surviving forensic evidence. DNA analysis on extant letters is inconclusive; the available material has been handled many times and is too contaminated to provide meaningful results. There have been mutually incompatible claims that DNA evidence points conclusively to two different suspects, and the methodology of both has also been criticized.

“Jack the Ripper” features in hundreds of works of fiction and works which straddle the boundaries between fact and fiction, including the “Ripper” letters and are a hoax. The “Ripper” appears in novels, short stories, poems, comic books, games, songs, plays, operas, television programs, and films. More than 100 non-fiction works deal exclusively with the “Jack the Ripper” murders, making it one of the most written-about true-crime subjects. He is depicted as a shadow. In 2006, BBC History magazine and its readers selected “Jack the Ripper” as the worst Briton in history

Bottom line: this is one crime that will likely not be solved, yet speculation will continue for years to come.