It might seem a bit of a strange statement to make, given that he is probably the world’s best known serial killer, but Jack the Ripper never actually existed.
A series of brutal and very gruesome murder in the East End of London most certainly did take place, but the killer responsible was never caught and his identity still remains unknown, despite the efforts of hundreds of amateur sleuths to track him down. One think though is certain. Whoever the killer was, his name probably wasn’t Jack!
Indeed, at the time of the murders, the killer was known by a variety of different names. “Leather Apron,” “The Whitechapel Murderer,” or “The East End Fiend,” are just a few of the titles given the unknown miscreant in the autumn of 1888 as his murders increased in their savagery and Victorian Londoners struggled to understand the horrors of the brutalities that were occurring in their midst.
Before the name Jack the Ripper was even used four murders had already taken place and had you mentioned the name Jack the Ripper to any London citizen prior to the 1st October 1888 you would have received a blank stare.
That doesn’t mean that Londoners weren’t terrified of the unknown miscreant who was conducting his murderous reign in the East End. It just means that the name by which that murderer is now known had not, up until then, received wide circulation.
Interestingly, however, it is possible to look at a possible sequence of events that led to the murderer’s chilling pseudonym. In the early days of the Whitechapel Murders (early September 1888), a character whom the local prostitutes had nicknamed “Leather Apron” was being sought by the police in connection with the murders. One police officer maintained that this character was a man named “Jack” or John Pizer and thus the hunt for him began.
But when, in the wake of the murder of Annie Chapman – on the 8th September 1888 – Pizer was finally arrested, he had cast iron alibis for the nights of the two recent murders and was quickly ruled out as a suspect.
However, the name “Jack” had certainly become associated with the crimes during the police search for Pizer and his subsequent absolution.
In the wake of the murder of Mary Nichols on 31st August 1888 (she is generally believed to have been the first victim of “Jack the Ripper”) there was a great deal of speculation that the murders might be gang related. There was talk of so-called “High-rip” gangs running extortion rackets amongst the prostitutes of Whitechapel and of them threatening women who would not pay up with extreme violence, such as ripping them up.
Although the police had abandoned this theory in favour of a lone assassin by the second week in September 1888, the idea of gang involvement lingered on in the minds of the local citizens for some time longer.
Thus the words “Jack” and “Rip” were certainly being associated with the East End murders by mid September.
In addition, the inquests into the deaths of Whitechapel Murder victim Mary Nichols and Annie Chapman were receiving a huge amount of press coverage throughout September 1888 and details of the horror of the mutilations that had been carried out on the bodies of these two unfortunate ladies were both fascinating and repulsing the readers of the many newspapers that had latched on to the fact that, the more they wrote about the murder, the more copies of their publications they could expect to sell.
Against the backcloth of the excitement and the publicity that the murders were generating, an unknown writer took up his pen at some stage around the 25th September 1888 and wrote a letter that would have the effect of turning the gruesome street pantomime that the murders were rapidly becoming into an international phenomenon.
Horrific as the murders were, it is almost certain that, had it not been for the fevered imagination of this anonymous letter writer, the world at large would have long ago forgotten them.
As he began scratching his epistle onto the paper he began to warm to his theme. “Dear Boss,” he scrawled in a bold copperplate hand, “I keep on hearing that the police have caught me, but they won’t fix me just yet.” Claiming that he was the man responsible for the previous two murders he continued, “Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now.” Having lamented that the “proper red stuff” he had saved in a ginger beer bottle to write with “over the last job” had gone “all thick like glue” so that he couldn’t use it, he gloated “red ink is fit enough I hope ha ha.”
Having penned a few more boasts he ended the missive with the disturbing threat “my knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get the chance.” Searching for a suitably macabre moniker with which to end his missive the writer scrawled out the chilling signature “Jack the Ripper.”
No doubt chortling to himself over his excellent joke, the writer folded his work and placed it inside an envelope and sent it to the Central News Agency in the City of London. They duly passed it to the police on the 29th September 1888.
At this point in the saga the police believed that the letter was a hoax and they would, no doubt, ignored it completely. But, on 30th September 1888, the murder managed to kill two women – Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes – within an hour and within a short distance of each other. The fact he had committed one murder under the noses of the police led to a huge increase of public and press criticism against the police.
Desperate for a breakthrough, the police made the “Jack the Ripper” letter public and the name immediately captured the public imagination and gave the unknown killer the name by which he would come down to posterity.
The letter most certainly did not come from the murderer and was, probably, the work of a journalist. But the name he created helped turn five squalid East London murders into an international phenomenon and effectively launched the legend of Jack the Ripper.