He wasn’t the first, the last, nor yet the most prolific serial killer of all time, but he’s probably the most notorious, with a nickname recognized almost globally: Jack the Ripper.
We can say with fair certainty that the Ripper was responsible for five murders of alcoholic prostitutes over a ten-week period between August 31 and November 9, 1888, in the Whitechapel district of London’s East End, although some “Ripperologists” argue that he was responsible for at least one more Whitechapel murder and has been touted as a suspect in crimes happening as far from London as New York City, St. Petersburg, Russia, Paris–and even Galveston, Texas!
Most of those suspicions, while intriguing, can’t quite be substantiated.
Whitechapel, as the Ripper and his victims knew it, has been all but obliterated by the German blitz of World War II and by massive demolition and reconstruction projects since the 1960s. Tour guides can take the curious to the new buildings that cover the sites of the Ripper’s five known murders, and describe how they were in that dreadful autumn of 1888 in such vivid detail that one almost feels transported back to that time and place.
Do the Ripper and his victims still walk, as ghosts, in Whitechapel? Stories suggest they do.
Mary Ann “Polly” Walker Nichols found dead in the gutter along Buck’s Row (later Durward Street) at 3:45 AM August 31, 1888.
The man who found Polly’s body thought at first that he had merely walked up on a heap of discarded clothing; a second recognized that it was a body, but not until they summoned a constable did anyone realize she was dead. The constable had passed that spot a mere thirty minutes earlier, walking his regular beat; Polly had not been there then.
She had died of a slashed throat and exsanguination. Only later, during an examination at the morgue, were the horrifying mutilations that would become the Ripper’s signature found, hidden by her clothes.
As early as 1895, there were reports that what appeared to be a heap of clothing could occasionally be seen on the spot where Polly died. It gave off a ghastly grayish light, and would slowly melt into the surrounding darkness. Dogs and horses, in those days, were known to shy around that place.
Eliza Ann “Dark Annie” Smith Chapman found dead in the back yard of Number 29, Hanbury Street, at approximately six AM on September 8, 1888, almost decapitated and badly mutilated.
Ill from tuberculosis, malnutrition, and alcoholism, Annie Chapman was, like Polly Nichols, out trying to earn the price of a bed. She was seen entering Number 29 with a man about an hour before her body was found.
There are more reports of ghostly phenomena surrounding Annie’s murder than any of the other Ripper victims. The back yard of Number 29, where she was found, was haunted for many years by sounds of struggle, panting, and something very like a body falling, followed by the sound of footsteps running out of the yard.
Annie had, as a wife and mother in her younger days, lived at Windsor. There have been reports of a woman’s ghost sitting on a wall near Windsor Barracks; some think this spirit is that of Annie Chapman, drawn back to a place where she was happy.
Perhaps the most intriguing sightings of Annie’s spirit–and possibly of her killer–were reported over a period of several years in the 1920s by a Whitechapel resident named Chapman (no relation). On at least four different occasions, usually in September and always early in the morning, Chapman saw a woman and man at the door leading into Number 29; the woman caught his attention because she wore shabby Victorian clothing, while the man wore a greatcoat and a wide-brimmed hat with a tall crown. Once, Chapman tried to point the odd pair out to his wife, who just missed seeing them, but pointed out that she should have been able to see the door closing behind them; only then did Chapman realize that he had never seen them open the door and go into Number 29. They always seemed just to pass through it without opening it. The last time he saw the pair, around 1930, he was accompanied by his brother, who saw nothing but heard footsteps, although no living person was walking past Number 29 at the time.
Number 29 was eventually knocked down and built over by the Old Truman Brewery. There were reports that a the shadow of a woman was seen on the wall of a storeroom when no woman was present; the storeroom was built over the place where Annie was found. And, on every September 8, it was said, the brewery’s boardroom would become icy cold–just about six o’clock in the morning.
Elizabeth Gustafsdottir “Long Liz” Stride found dead of a slashed throat in a court off Berner Street (later Henriques Street) at approximately 12:55 AM, September 30, 1888.
Some Ripperologists, citing the lack of the Ripper’s characteristic mutilations, do not think Stride was killed by the Ripper. More than likely, she was not mutilated because the killer was interrupted by the arrival of a man driving a horse and cart into the courtyard where she was found, and only just managed to slip away unnoticed. Liz had last been seen alive about 12:45 AM, talking with a man on Berner Street; she was found dead about ten minutes later.
At the time, her identity was in question. Although she was identified as Elizabeth Stride by Michael Kidney, with whom she shared a room on the notorious Flower and Dean Street, a woman named Mary Malcolm testified at the inquest on her death that she was actually Malcolm’s sister, Elizabeth Watts, who was, like Liz Stride, an alcoholic prostitute living in Whitechapel. Mrs. Malcolm also testified that, on that Sunday morning, she was awake at 1:20 AM when she felt a sudden heaviness on her chest, followed by three kisses, which she felt and heard, on her cheek. She knew then, she said, that her sister was dead.
Catherine Eddowes found dead in the southwest corner of Mitre Square in the square mile known as the City of London–a mere fifteen minute walk from the site of Elizabeth Stride’s murder–at about 1:45 AM September 30, 1888, horribly mutilated.
Catherine Eddowes had been incarcerated at the Bishopsgate Police Station from about eight PM on September 29, after being found “drunk and incapable” in the gutter. Released about one AM on the 30th, she apparently went out seeking a customer and was found dead about forty-five minutes later. A constable would testify that he had walked through Mitre Square at 1:30 and seen nothing untoward; when he returned some fifteen minutes later, he found Eddowes, newly dead, her body and face badly cut.
In a letter which may have been written by the Ripper himself, the deaths of Stride and Eddowes are referred to as a “double event”.
Mitre Square was haunted, for many years afterward, by the sound of screams and by an odd glowing apparition, head in the southwest corner and feet pointing outward toward the square. One couple reported seeing not only this apparition but also what appeared to be a man hurriedly leaving the square in the opposite direction. They approached the corner and thought at first that they were seeing a living woman and were about to summon police, thinking she might have been assaulted and left there by the man they had spotted when a group of young boys entered the square and began playing in that corner–now empty.
Mary Jane “Marie Jeanette” Kelly [Davies] last reported alive about 2:30 AM on November 9, 1888; found mutilated beyond recognition in the room she rented at Number 13 Miller’s Court off Dorset Street around eleven o’clock the same morning by a man coming to collect her arrears in rent. At the inquest, the coroner’s best guess was that she had been killed–probably in her sleep–between three and five AM.
The Miller’s Court site was reportedly haunted by ghostly screams and, on a staircase in a house built there thirty years after Mary Kelly’s appalling death, by the figure of a woman.
The family who occupied Number 13, Miller’s Court after Mary’s murder claimed that there was a bloody handprint on the wall above where Mary’s bed had been. They tried to cover the print with paint, tried to scrub it off, but were unsuccessful; they finally hid it behind a picture of the Crucifixion.
By far the most intriguing story of Mary’s spirit, though, was offered as testimony at the inquest following her death, by a woman named Caroline Maxwell. Maxwell, the wife of a man who ran a boarding house, said under oath that she had talked to Mary around eight AM on November 9–at which time Mary had, by the coroner’s estimate, been dead between three and five hours. Another witness, Maurice Lewis, purportedly spoke to Mary around 10 AM that same morning, in a pub.
The police dismissed these sightings because neither gave an accurate physical description of Mary Kelly, nor did they fit the time frame in which the murder was committed. It’s possible that Maxwell, who claimed to know Mary by sight, had seen her sometime prior to her death, but mixed up the date.
There’s a ghost story that comes from the banks of the River Thames; they say that around the first of December you can see the ghost of a man jumping into the river, and that that man was Jack the Ripper.
Most probably, the ghost seen there is of a Ripper suspect: the failed barrister Montague John Druitt, who, depressed over the loss of a job at the prestigious Blackheath School and fearing that he, like his mother, was doomed to become incurably insane, drowned himself in the river, some three weeks after Mary Kelly’s death; his body was pulled from the river on December 31, 1888.
Druitt was first mentioned as a Ripper suspect in 1894, but the evidence against him is thin at best.
Despite all theories and speculations, the Ripper remains unidentified to this day.
My primary source for ghosts of the Ripper is Peter Underwood’s 1987 book Jack the Ripper: One Hundred Years of Mystery.