An Introduction to the Jack the Ripper Mystery

Jack the Ripper Illustration 1888

The Illustrated Police News/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain 

Someone in London murdered and mutilated a number of prostitutes during the autumn of 1888; the press went into a frenzy, politicians pointed the finger at each other, hoaxers polluted the investigation, and one of several nicknames stuck: Jack the Ripper. Over a century later, Jack's identity has never been wholly proven (there isn't even a leading suspect), most aspects of the case are still debated, and the Ripper is an infamous cultural bogeyman.

The Enduring Mystery

The Ripper's identity has never been established and people have never stopped looking: the publishing rate's average is a new book a year since 1888 (although most of these have come in recent decades). Unfortunately, the wealth of Ripper source material — letters, reports, diaries, and photographs — provides enough depth for detailed and fascinating research, but too few facts for any incontrovertible conclusions. Just about everything about Jack the Ripper is open to debate and the best you can get is a consensus. People are still finding new suspects or new ways to reframe old suspects, and books are still flying off the shelves. There is no better mystery.

The Crimes

Traditionally, Jack the Ripper is considered to have killed five women, all London prostitutes, during 1888: Mary Ann 'Polly' Nichols on August 31, Annie Chapman on September 8, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on September 30 and Mary Jane (Marie Jeanette) Kelly on November 9. In practice, there is no agreed list: the most popular change is to discount Stride and/or Kelly, sometimes adding Martha Tabram, killed August 7th. Authors naming more than eight have achieved very little consensus. At the time Polly Nichols was sometimes considered the second or third person to have been killed by the same person, and plenty of later investigators have searched the world in search of similar killings to see if the Ripper moved on.

The Ripper generally killed by strangling his victims, then laying them down and cutting the arteries in their throats; this was followed by a varied process of mutilation, during which parts of the body were removed and kept. Because Jack did this quickly, often in the dark, and because he seemed to have great anatomical knowledge, people have assumed the Ripper had a doctor's or surgeon's training. As with much of the case, there is no consensus — a contemporary thought him simply a blunderer. There have been accusations that the missing organs weren't stolen from the bodies by the Ripper, but by people dealing with them later. Evidence for this is scant.

The Letters and Nicknames

During the autumn and winter of 1888/89, a number of letters circulated among the police and newspapers, all claiming to be from the Whitechapel murderer; these include the 'From Hell' letter and one accompanied by part of a kidney (which may have matched a kidney taken from one of the victims, but like everything Jack, we're not a hundred percent sure). Ripperologists consider most, if not all, of the letters to be hoaxes, but their impact at the time was considerable, if only because one contained the first use of 'Jack the Ripper', a nickname the papers swiftly adopted and which is now synonymous.

Horror, Media, and Culture

The Ripper killings were neither obscure nor ignored at the time. There was gossip and fear in the streets, questions at high levels of government, and offers of rewards and resignations when nobody was caught. Political reformers used the Ripper in arguments and policemen struggled with the limited techniques of the time. Indeed, the Ripper case remained high profile enough for many of the police involved to write private accounts years later. However, it was the media who made 'Jack the Ripper'.

By 1888, literacy was common amongst the crowded citizens of London and newspapers reacted to the Whitechapel Murderer, whom they initially christened 'Leather Apron', with the frenzy we expect from modern tabloids, stirring opinions, fact, and theory – along with the probably hoaxed Ripper letters – together to create a legend which seeped into popular culture. From the very start, Jack doubled as a figure from the horror genre, a bogeyman to scare your kids.

A century later, Jack the Ripper is still hugely famous world over, an unknown criminal at the center of a global manhunt. But he is more than that, he's the focus of novels, films, musicals, and even a six-inch high model plastic figure. Jack the Ripper was the first serial killer adopted by the modern media age and he's been at the forefront ever since, mirroring the evolution of western culture. Other serial killers who have murdered prostitutes include New York's most prolific murderer, Joel Rifkin.

Will the Mystery Be Solved?

It's extremely unlikely anyone will be able to use the existing evidence to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, who Jack the Ripper was and, while people are still uncovering material, the discovery of something unarguable has to be regarded as a long-shot. Fortunately, the mystery is so fascinating because you can do your own reading, draw your own conclusions and, with some critical thinking, generally have as much chance of being right as everyone else! Suspects range from people the detectives at the time suspected (such as George Chapman / Klosowski), to a whole gallery of strange suggestions, which include no less than Lewis Carroll, a royal doctor, Inspector Abberline himself, and someone who even blamed their relative decades later after finding some tenuous items.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "An Introduction to the Jack the Ripper Mystery." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Wilde, Robert. (2021, September 8). An Introduction to the Jack the Ripper Mystery. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "An Introduction to the Jack the Ripper Mystery." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).