|A Ripperologist Article|
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L. Perry Curtis Jr.
Like any sensational crime featured day after day in the mass media the Whitechapel murders provoked a huge response from the public in the form of hundreds of letters addressed to the editors of London's newspapers during 1888-89. In this way Victorians of diverse occupations and disparate education shared their thoughts or fantasies about the perpetrator with their fellow readers. But thousands of others preferred a more private route by writing to the police - both at Scotland Yard and district stations in the City and East End. As William Fishman has observed about the fallout from the murders, "the weirdos, the eccentrics, the perverts and the inadequates had a field day." 1 Needless to say, some of these characters identified so strongly with Jack the Ripper that they wrote gloating or taunting letters over that name boasting of more murders to come.
The beautifully produced and carefully compiled book by Stewart P. Evans and Keith Skinner, Jack the Ripper: Letters From Hell (2001), provides ample evidence of the macabre fantasies that the mutilation-murders unleashed in obscure misogynists with a penchant for sadism or a compulsion to confess.
All this Ripper mail - whether designed for public or private consumption - constitutes a valuable source of information about the concerns, if not obsessions, of contemporaries at home and abroad. Many letters were addressed to either the Lord Mayor, Sir Polydore de Keyser, or Colonel Sir James Fraser (1814-92), Commissioner of the City of London police, headquartered at 26 Old Jewry. An able commander, Fraser was on the verge of retirement when the Ripper struck. Almost a century later the sterling efforts of Donald Rumbelow resulted in the preservation of more than three hundred of these letters in the Corporation of London Record Office at Guildhall2. This mail affords some fascinating, if fleeting, insights into contemporary attitudes towards the sensation-horrors taking place in a part of London notorious for poverty, prostitution, crime, overcrowding, and foreign immigration. This essay constitutes a rough and ready content analysis of the surviving letters sent to Old Jewry during that season of mounting horror.
Compared with the letters to the editor published in the press, the police mail was more spontaneous, candid, eccentric, and at times a good deal cruder. Excluding the cohort of Ripper wannabes, at least half a dozen of the letters sent to Col. Fraser reveal something about their authors's sexual fantasies. Although the vast majority wanted to see the Whitechapel "fiend" brought to justice, a handful seemed more concerned with securing the reward money destined for anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.
Although the class and status of these correspondents cannot be accurately gauged by handwriting, style, and spelling alone, the latter variables suggest that most belonged to the middle and lower middle class. Only a dozen or so writers actually admitted their working-class origins but the style of a dozen other letters smacked of a similar provenance.
Excluding the ten or so decipherable letters in this batch signed by self-styled Jacks, my sample of the Old Jewry mail contains some 320 legible letters written by some 271 people. Only 16 per cent of these writers were anonymous or used such epithets as "Common Sense," "Qui Vive," "Nemesis," or "Scotus." By way of contrast, 37 percent of those in our newspaper sample relied on pseudonyms3. No doubt the promise of confidentiality as well as the lure reward money spurred more of the police correspondents to reveal their identity and address. As for the number of self-proclaimed women writers, the figure of 8.5 percent came very close to that in the newspaper sample (9 percent). Concerning residence or point of origin, almost half of the 244 letters bearing an address came from Greater London - defined here as the area within a twelve-mile radius centred on St. Paul's. (The comparable figure for the published mail was 68 percent.) Slightly over a third of this mail originated in the English provinces, mostly the southern counties, while Scotland, Ireland, and Wales yielded 11, 4, and 1 letters respectively. Eleven came from the United States (several penned by English expatriates), eight from Europe (two being English residents), and three from Australia. No letters emanated from Africa, Asia, India, or Latin America.
Just like the newspaper mail the favourite topics of the Old Jewry correspondents were methods of detection and suspects. Thus suspects were mentioned in 143 letters, advice about how to catch the killer in 159, and 18 dealt with both subjects - making a total of 320 letters. In marked contrast to the newspaper mail, which contained many complaints about the state of lawlessness in London, hardly any of these Old Jewry correspondents had the temerity to accuse the authorities of bungling the investigation. However one might construe all the advice about how to catch the perpetrator as a form of indirect criticism. One or two writers did blame the crimes on metropolitan vice. Thus Susan Fraser, the wife of an Indian civil servant, lamented the rampant immorality of London. She had brought her children home from India to escape all the "impure" influences there only to find that "impurity" had triumphed in "so-called Christian England." Appalled by these vicious murders, she wondered why "the women of England do not rise in a body to appeal against such violence being done to any woman however much despised she may be" (Oct. 2).4
Suspects and Motives
Of the more than 150 suspects nominated in the Old Jewry mail, 101 were English or British subjects, 21 were European (including 5 Jewish immigrants), 6 were American, 3 were East Indian, and 2 were Malay. Among the nationalities or ethnicities receiving at least one mention were a Black and a White South African, an Irishman, and an Irish-American. As for occupation, by far the most popular choice - amounting to 46 percent - was a doctor or surgeon. Other candidates included a religious maniac (13 mentions), a butcher (9), a man disguised as a woman (7), a night-watchman (6), a woman (6), a policeman (5), a victim of venereal disease (4), a professional man (2), a flasher (2), and a man disguised as a constable (2). One respectable widow from Upper Clapton, reported seeing a "disgusting" man exposing himself in Devonshire Street and hoped that he would repent "when in the agony of his own Death" he sought forgiveness from "Jesus sweet Jesus - Amen" (Oct. 8). Of the 23 acknowledged female writers, 14 chose to deal with suspects and the moral implications of the crimes rather than modes of detection. Not surprisingly, only one of these women thought that the Ripper might be one of her own sex.
Under the heading of human vivisection several correspondents echoed Coroner Wynne E. Baxter's theory by speculating that a fanatic pathologist or surgeon was cutting up women in order to study their genitalia, especially the uterus. Thus an imaginative major in the Royal Fusiliers, Charles Latham, opined that a well-to-do medical student was experimenting with female genitalia in a state of sexual arousal. In loving detail he explained how the killer had grown "mad enough" - although sane in all other respects - to procure the desired organ "under a condition of activity and excitement." With knife in hand along with a bottle of spirits and a damp sponge he would stalk his victim and take her to a dark spot for "an immoral purpose." After cutting her throat while "actually having connection," he would rip open her stomach, remove the womb, and place it in the bottle so that he could study it in his secret laboratory in Whitechapel (Oct. 3). Although bereft of a motive, Mr. I. Tullidge, who owned a London carpet steam-cleaning firm, argued that the murderer cut the throat of his victim while "having connection from behind, instead of the natural way." He urged the police to question prostitutes about any encounters with men interested in anal intercourse and recommended the use of East End unfortunates as "dupes to bring the monster to justice" (Oct. 2).
At least four male writers insisted that the murders were inspired by revenge against prostitutes for spreading venereal disease. "Scotus" paraded his medical knowledge by reckoning that the killer had been "badly disfigured" by phagedaena, an ulcerative disease, that might have destroyed his "privy member." Here then was the motive for these crimes. He advised the police to check every hospital that had recently treated patients for any such disorder. (Oct. 4). "A Thinker" believed that desire for "morbid revenge and retaliation for a severe dose of venerial [sic]" lay behind these crimes. He imagined a scenario wherein the killer would approach his victim, discuss the price for her services, fondle her from behind, and pretend to unbutton his trousers. At that point he would pull out a knife and cut her throat from left to right (Sept. 3). A man from Thanet College, Margate, Kent informed Col. Fraser that the culprit suffered from softening of the brain caused by consorting with diseased prostitutes. Acting on "the vile superstition of the Chinese and Malays," he was slaying these women in order to make a uterine poultice that would "suck off the virus from his ulcers" (Nov. 13). Robert Owen, an American from Milldale in Tuscaloosa county, Alabama, proposed that intimacy with prostitutes had ruined the mind and body of the murderer, who had once been a respectable man despite his assumption that the world was made for his pleasure. "Reduced to desperation and frenzy by disease," he was now running "a muck [sic]' against the class he held responsible for his downfall (Sept. 27).
At least one educated writer attributed the Whitechapel horrors to socialism rather than syphilis. T. J. Nettleship of Oxford Street speculated that the killer might be one of "the socialist pedagogues who hoist the red flag in Hyde Park." And if this was not the case, then they knew his identity and were protecting him for political reasons. After all, he had recently heard one of these demagogues (one wonders if this could have been G. B. Shaw or H. M. Hyndman) exclaiming: "Wait till we get a few murders done up here at the West End, and then you'll see what a howl there'll be" (Oct. 2). Dr. P. J. M., a misogynistic American army surgeon, who had run a military hospital in Europe, could not decide if the killer was a man or a woman. But he told the police to be on the lookout for someone dressed as a woman and to keep every "suspicious" woman under surveillance. And if this "devilish" criminal did turn out to be a woman, then she had probably lost her lover or husband because he was "an excessive, lascivious man." And he did not have to tell the Lord Mayor "what such a 'Fury' is able to do" if only because "the D---- may know what is often in such a petticoat !!!!" (n.d..).
Relying on his statistical skills, a calculating officer in the London Customs House, E. K. Larkins, compiled a long memorandum filled with data concerning the arrivals and departures of cattle boats along the Thames. Correlating these with the times of each murder, he narrowed the choice down to two vessels and concluded that the killer was a middle-aged Portuguese cattleman who accompanied livestock shipments from Oporto to London (Jan. 11, 1889). Along the same lines, the xenophobic Frederick Charles Friend from Peckham suspected a Spanish or Italian sailor on board a vessel plying between the port of London and the Continent. This boat arrived at the end of each month and left on the 9th of the next. The "free use of the knife" as well as the vengeful nature of the attacks clearly pointed to a southern European culprit (Oct. 3 and Nov. 9).
On the other hand several writers preferred Asian or Jewish Jacks. Thus William Gow of Alyth, Perthshire blamed the murders on a gang of Indian hill tribesmen, who believed in the magical power of the "generative organs" which they wore as amulets (Oct. 3, 9). Mary Kidgell, an English teacher living in Turin, Italy, considered the mutilations so precise and neat as to be the handiwork of a "votary of the Buddhist faith" or maybe a Brahmin "thug" bent on human sacrifice to "their deity." Because such people were "adept in the bloody rites of an abominable worship" she wanted the police to search every Indian temple in London for evidence of human sacrifice (Nov. 29). John Binny of Tavistock Place, London cast Jack as a seafaring Malay cook, called "Alaska," who knew how to butcher animals. Presumably, he had declared war on prostitutes because one of them had robbed him. Since no "Britisher or American, however depraved, could act so like a fiend of hell," the killer had to be one of those Malays who were "well-known to be fiendish in their revenge" (Oct. 6).
As for the small anti-Semitic contingent, by far the fiercest bigot was W. J. Smith of Red Lion Passage, Holborn, who blamed the murders on the influx of "foreigners" from Eastern Europe. Not only had the Jews taken jobs away from Englishmen but they were also spouting socialist or communist slogans and trampling on the rights of native-born citizens. If this trend continued, there would soon be no English people left and unless the government kicked these undesirables into the sea, "the City is doomed to destruction." Smith's tirade did not stop there. He called for ethnic cleansing by arson, in short a holocaust, by setting hundreds of fires in the East End, "at a given signal - say the sending up of a Balloon that could be seen all over London" (Oct. 9).
The long list of suspects in this mail ran the gamut from a flasher who had exposed himself to several women in the West End to an "Electro-Boiologist," who mesmerised his victims before killing them. In between these extremes were medical men, butchers or slaughtermen, one or two plebeian Irishmen, and Police Constable Edward Watkins, who had found Eddowes's body in Mitre Square. The prime candidate of one anonymous writer ("M.P.") was Richard Mansfield, the Anglo-American star of the spectacular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde production at the Lyceum. After all Mansfield was capable of working himself into such a "dretefull manor" in order to become Hyde and he did not perform on Saturday nights when most of the murders took place (Oct. 5). As for other celebrities, Charles Stewart Parnell received at least one nomination (n.d. /c. Nov. 2/); and C. J. Denny from Farnborough pointed an accusing finger at L. Forbes Winslow, the vainglorious alienist and asylum operator, because his recent letter to the Globe showed signs of "incipient insanity" (Oct. 3). Alex de Borra, a doctor from Elsinore, near Riverside, California, thought that Jack was a mad physician who killed female patients in his office and then disposed of them "at leisure" (Sept. 12).
The most bizarre suspect of all was not a man but an ape that had escaped from a "wild beast show." So thought Mrs. L. Painter of Ryde, Isle of Wight, who must have owed her inspiration to Poe's razor-wielding Orang-Utan in the Murders in the Rue Morgue. She explained how this powerful and agile creature escaped at night, removed a knife hidden in a nearby tree, and then killed his victims silently before returning dutifully to his cage. At this point, however, Mrs Painter shifted her ground. She wondered if the murderer might be a "mad woman." But in the end she opted for the ape theory because this beast was so swift, cunning, noiseless, and strong. After denouncing prostitutes, she expressed her hope that the fear provoked by the murders would "rid our streets of those women who are too often called 'unfortunates'" and force them to find an honest living because "a violent disease requires a violent remedy" (Oct. 3).
Modes of Detection
Suggestions by the Old Jewry correspondents for capturing the Ripper ranged from commonsensical to the far side of fanciful. Apart from psychic divination six writers recommended that the police wear noiseless boots or rubber galoshes "to deaden the sound of their feet." Ten (including Percy Lindley, the bloodhound breeder and travel writer) advised the use of bloodhounds and two opted for better lighting in Whitechapel. Thirteen writers - mostly men - volunteered to hunt down the killer. And the business manager of the Financial Times offered to donate £50 to the reward fund.
By way of contrast with the letters to the editor a higher percentage of the Old Jewry mail (57 writers in all) urged the police to use human decoys to trap the Ripper. Most thought that these men or women should be disguised as prostitutes and assigned to walk the streets late at night watched over by policemen ready to arrest anyone who threatened them. Of these arm-chair sleuths, 37 recommended that boyish-looking detectives or constables be dressed up to resemble women of the night, while the other 20 preferred to see working-class women from the East End recruited for this dangerous task. Several writers prescribed some kind of body armour in the form of chain mail from chin to thigh concealed beneath lace or velvet collars and dresses in order to ward off a knife attack. Richard Taylor from Long Acre, Clwyd, suggested that the male decoys in drag wear a flexible steel corset and neck-collar. The latter device would be wired to a portable battery powerful enough to administer a severe shock to anyone who grasped their throat (Oct. 6). The even more inventive W. Bryn of Forest Hill, near Lewisham proposed the construction of mechanical figures resembling prostitutes. Installed in "dark and lonely" places, these contraptions would contain "powerful springs" set to release octopus-like arms that would fly out and encircle anyone who raised its chin or squeezed its throat. While grasping its prey in this manner, the robot would emit a loud whistle to alert the police (Oct. 2). A man from Walworth wanted to see police-trained couples strolling around the East End armed with glass syringes filled with a corrosive acid to be sprayed on any suspect, who could then be identified and taken into custody (Oct. 3). William Walton of Kingsley, Cheshire had a simpler idea: the police should give "unfortunates" pieces of paper smeared with ""Bird Lime." If attacked, the woman would slap this paper on the back or sleeve of her assailant thereby marking him out for arrest (Oct. 8).
The detective category also included 23 letters from self-styled psychics or spiritualists who boasted that they could find the killer by extrasensory means. This mail reflected the fervent belief of so many Victorians in psychical research, the occult, sťances, and mesmerism or "animal magnetism."5 Thus several writers claimed that they could track down the Ripper by studying a lock of hair or some other object taken from one of his victims. A respectable woman from Kentish Town with twenty years' experience of "clairvoyant powers" told Col. Fraser that she had just visited Old Jewry in the hope of finding something that would connect the Mitre Square victim to herself. In order to "stop this fearful butchery" she needed to borrow "one single hair" from Stride or Eddowes or any part of their clothing touched by the killer (Oct. 3).
A devout man from Utica, New York, E. Jay Klinck, shared his vision with the Lord Mayor. After beseeching God to reveal the murderer, he had seen the pale, thin face of a woman standing next to a French or Italian man "laughing heartily." This dark-complexioned man had a perfect set of teeth, a full beard and a black moustache with the ends twisted upwards (Oct. 7). A self-proclaimed and importuning psychic from Bedfordshire was responsible for the largest single batch of letters (a dozen in all). Although Jonathan F. Hunt of Biggleswade boasted often about his "acute mental sensitiveness," he changed his mind more than once about his prime suspect. However, he never lost sight of the reward money. At the outset he asked for £500 in return for describing the killer as an Italian sculptor or mason. Several letters later he focused on a man suffering from "recurrent periodical mania. much like menstrualation [sic] in females" (Oct. 3, 6, 8, 22, Nov. 13, 28, Dec. 7, 8, 24, 26, 1888 and Jan. 2, March 4, 1889). Small wonder that the police dismissed him as a crank. Lastly, a French lady with the patrician name of Cesarine Kestelout de Noyelles of Orbec en Auge, Calvados was convinced that some "miserable" medical students were stealing and selling female body parts. She urged the police to find the villains by using a hypnotized subject who had communicated with the body of a Ripper victim (Sept. 26). By way of contrast, hardly any of the newspaper correspondents in our sample laid claim to being a psychic or medium capable of identifying the killer.
A courageous young woman from Pentridge told the Lord Mayor shortly after the double event of her plan for capturing the killer. Deeply disturbed by the fate of these "poor unfortunates," Lizzie Turncliffe was prepared to "act the part of a fallen woman" and walk the streets of Whitechapel late at night followed by a detective. If the killer was "still bent on his fiendish work" and accosted her, she would accompany him to a dark corner whereupon the detective would "take him red-handed in his crime." But if the man turned out not to be the culprit, then the detective would save her "from any other outrage." Disavowing any interest in reward money, she humbly asked for train fare and living expenses while in London (Oct. 3). Another bold volunteer, John Burke, a working-class youth from New Hartley, Northumberland, wanted to join the CID when he was old enough. He proposed a visit to London to observe how prostitutes plied their trade. He would then dress like a "street girl" in the hope of luring the killer into his clutches (Oct. 3). George Hammer, a retired London policeman who had emigrated to DeKalb, Indiana and was neither "precocious youth nor the old crank," offered to return and join in the hunt for the Ripper (Nov. 28). And a "stout-hearted" shopkeeper from Hemel Hempstead was willing to pursue "the clever rouge [sic]" provided the police gave him a new suit of clothes, a pair of rubber-soled shoes, and a thick leather waistcoat for protection (n.d.).
Five correspondents thought that the police should improve their communications in order to sound the alarm quickly when the murderer struck again. One of these was an expatriate Yorkshireman, J. R. Clark, who had moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he worked for an electric bell company. His plan involved the laying down of wires in the gutters of Whitechapel equipped with numbered buttons placed at thirty-foot intervals and connected to a large bell-box at police headquarters. When anything suspicious occurred, a detective disguised as a woman would push the nearest button to summon help. Clark's Hibernophobia came to the fore when he declared: "on no account must you let an irish /sic/ Detective peep at it. He must be an Englishman" (Nov. 19). On a more strategic note Harry Green from Canonbury was so worried about the inadequacy of police patrols in the East End that he wanted the German Emperor to lend "his beloved Royal Grandmother" one thousand "skilled detectives" from Berlin. And if he complied, then perhaps the Emperor of Russia and the President of France would follow suit and send an equal number of sleuths into the East End (Oct. 1).
Five writers shared the popular belief that the victims's eyes retained an image of their killer's features and pressed the police to photograph their retinas6. A German from Bremerhaven, who hankered after the L 500 reward, offered some technical advice. To obtain a clear image of the killer the victim's optic nerve should be stimulated electrically and an incandescent lamp placed behind the eye (Sept. 12, 1889). Several graphologists tendered their services to the police. James Gibbins, the resident handwriting expert of the comic weekly, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday, was willing to analyze the letter and card sent by Jack to the Central News agency (Oct. 3, 12). Almost absent from this police mail was the bloodhound lobby that had accounted for almost 20 percent of the letters to the editor dealing with modes of detection.
If more of the Old Jewry correspondents showed interest in the reward money than did those who wrote to the press, not all of the former were mercenary. For example, one suppliant from the East End craved social, not financial, gain. Rather brazenly - or pathetically - N. A. Benelins revealed his burning desire for an introduction to the rich and famous, including the Lord Mayor and his "family circle" because this would enable him to "come in my right sphere" (Oct. 18). For sheer gall or chutzpah, however, no one topped Francis Zysler of Cambridge Heath, London who solicited the Lord Mayor in March 1890 for the reward money because no more Ripper murders had taken place since he had last written to the police almost two years before (n.d. /c. March 15, 1890/).
The meticulous work of Evans and Skinner makes it unnecessary to delve into the over two hundred letters, cards, and telegrams sent by wannabe Jacks to Scotland Yard (available in the Public Record Office at Kew) and the ten or so letters, cards, and telegrams from "hoaxers" that survived the winnowing process at Old Jewry. Suffice to say that these demented outpourings anticipated the response of "weirdos" or "kooks" in Germany in 1929 to the arrest and trial of Peter Kurten, "the monster of Dusseldorf." In that year the police and the press received some 160 letters from people claiming to be the murderer and mutilator of at least thirty women and children. Most of the "letters from Hell" written in 1888-9 were filled with crude and barely literate boasts about the murders. Often addressed to "Dear Boss," they contained promises of more attacks to come, punctuated by exclamations like "Ha ! Ha ! Ha!" Needless to say, this fantasy-driven mail would make fine grist for the mill of any psychiatrist interested in the psyches of people who relish the vicarious role of serial killer.
In sum, all this Ripper mail - whether reasonable and coherent or the exact opposite - represented the outpourings of people who were profoundly moved in some way or another by the murders. The utterly baffling nature of these crimes and the porosities of the Ripper reportage created a vacuum into which all these correspondents were drawn. Unfortunately, the other side of this mail is missing so we do not know if the authorities ever followed up any of the suggestions made. In any event much the same vacuum persists to this day, exerting a powerful pull on all of us post-Victorians - whether amateur or professional Ripperologists - who are still pursuing the ever elusive Jack.
1. W. J. Fishman, East End 1888: Life in a London Borough among the Labouring Poor, London : Duckworth, 1988, p. 216.
2. According to Evans and Skinner, the surviving Old Jewry mail contains "about 363 communications sent by some 301 correspondents." Jack the Ripper - Letters From Hell, Stroud: Gloucestershire: Sutton, p. 149. However, the letters that I found there in the early 1990s amounted to 320 - including some ten legible letters and cards signed "Jack the Ripper" or its equivalent.
3. See L. Perry Curtis, Jr., Jack the Ripper and the London Press, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, p. 240.
4. To save space I have omitted the archival references to all the letters cited here, which are deposited in the CLRO, Guildhall under the heading of Police Box 3.13 to P. B. 3.22. The author will supply individual call numbers upon request. Unless otherwise indicated, all the dates in parentheses refer to 1888.
5. For this largely middle-class fascination with spirits or ghosts, seances, and psychic research, see Janet Oppenheim, The Other World - Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England, 1850-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985 and Alison Winter, Mesmerized - Powers of Mind in Victorian Britain, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
6. Two of these writers mentioned that this technique had been used to solve several murders recently in both England and France. But the editor of the Photographic News dismissed the notion of retinal imaging as useless. See Photographic News, Sept. 21, 1888, p. 608. T. H. Rundle of Camborne, Cornwall also urged the police to "treat the eyes of Ripper victims scientifically (Oct. 16). See also Philip Sugden, The Complete History of Jack the Ripper, New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994, pp. 137-8.