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Another Look at the Lusk Kidney
by Christopher-Michael DiGrazia
PERHAPS NO object associated with the Whitechapel Murders has been a catalyst for more myth-making than the gruesome piece of extracted viscera known to posterity as the Lusk Kidney. Whether considered for the ghastliness of its presumed origin or for the questions inherent in its authenticity or falsity, few other artefacts connected with Jack the Ripper incite more dispute; and few provide such an arena for opposing points of view, each armed with seemingly incontrovertible evidence.
The basic facts surrounding the kidney are well known, but in light of the following discussion, they bear a brief recapitulation. At about 5.00 pm on Tuesday, 16 October 1888, a small package was delivered to the home of George Akin Lusk, a builder who resided at 1 Alderney Road, Mile End. Since his appointment as head of the Whitechapel (or Mile End) Vigilance Committee, Lusk had been the target for suspicious visitors and crank letters, and at first sight the small, paper-wrapped cardboard box with a London postmark ( the incomplete cancellation read "OND" --an obvious remnant of "LONDON") appeared to be one more. However, after opening the box, Lusk was shocked to discover a small piece of rancid flesh enclosed with the following note:
I send you half the
Kidne I took from one women
prasarved it for you tother piece I
fried and ate it was very nise. I
may send you the bloody knif that
took it out if you only wate a whil
Signed Catch me when
Mishter Lusk 1
Lusk's immediate reaction was that this was another in the series of crank communications, and he was prepared to dismiss it as an animal's kidney. Reflecting further, however - and in light of the somewhat sinister tone of an earlier postcard he had received noting "you seem rare frightened" - he decided to mention the package at the next Vigilance Committee meeting. On Thursday morning, Committee treasurer Aarons, secretary Harris, and members Reeves and Lawton arrived at Lusk's home to see the curious postal delivery for themselves. What happened next can best be told by an excerpt from the Star of 19 October:
The kidney has been examined
by Dr Gordon Brown who is of the opinion that it is human.
Every effort is being made to trace the sender, but it is not
desirable that publicity should be given to the doctor's
opinion, or the steps that are being taken inconsequence. It
might turn out after all to be the act of a Medical Student
who would have no difficulty in obtaining the organ in
Mr Lusk brought a parcel
which had been addressed to him to Leman Street. He received
it on 15th Oct [sic] and submitted it for examination
eventually to Dr Openshaw curator of London Hospital Museum
who pronounced it to be a human kidney. The kidney was at
once handed over to the City Police, and the combined medical
opinion they have taken upon it, is, that it is the kidney of
a human adult; not charged with fluid, as would have been the
case in a body handed over for purposes of dissection to an
hospital, but rather as it would be in a case where it was
taken from the body not so destined. In other words, similar
kidneys might + could be obtained from any dead person upon
whom a post mortem had been made from any cause by students
or dissecting room porter. [emphasis in
We need not quote from every press mention of the Lusk Kidney; only those that are most often referenced in modern books and have led to confusion over its authenticity. The Star, as we have seen, reported Mr Reed and Dr Thomas Openshaw as opining the kidney to be half of a left human kidney. The Press Association, however - a news-gathering and disseminating organization similar to the infamous Central News Agency - supplied the Eastern Post and City Chronicle of 20 October with a much more lavish account. There, Dr Openshaw was reported to have pronounced the kidney a "ginny kidney" - that is, one coming from someone who was a heavy drinker - as well as being from a woman approximately 45 years old. Furthermore, it was said, the kidney had been extracted within the past three weeks, which, it was inferred, placed its removal within the timeframe of Eddowes' murder. 5
So far as we can determine, however, Dr Openshaw never expressed himself so freely on the subject of the Lusk Kidney. In the Star and the Daily Telegraph of 20 October, he merely held to the opinion that the kidney was human and that it may have been a left kidney, which was the opinion assigned to him as well by Inspector Swanson. Certainly he was never again quoted so elaborately as in the Press Association report. 6
he solution to this quandary may lie in the Daily Telegraph of 19 October. Within a story headlined "MITRE-SQUARE MURDER. AN EXTRAORDINARY PARCEL," Vigilance Committee member Joseph Aarons was quoted relating his version of the events surrounding the kidney's identification. Whereas the Star implied that the entire party went to see Dr Openshaw, Aaron's Daily Telegraph interview is revealing:
Mr Reed. . .gave an opinion
that it was a portion of a human kidney, which had been
preserved in spirits of wine; but to make sure, he would go
over to the London Hospital. . .[o]n his return, Mr
Reed said that Dr Openshaw said that
the kidney belonged to a female, that it was part of the left
kidney, and that the woman had been in the habit of drinking.
He should think that the person had died about the same time
that the Mitre-square murder was committed. [italics added] 7
So who is responsible for this imaginative set of findings, which have influenced almost all later writers? If not Openshaw, then we are left with Reed, Aarons, or the Press Association. From the wording of the Telegraph article, the finger of guilt appears to point to Mr Reed, but at this remove it is impossible to tell. All we can do is put the 19 October story aside, since it contains nothing to prove the Lusk Kidney's authenticity.
The same may be said of yet another series of comments on the kidney, these found in the 1910 memoirs of former City Police Commissioner Major Sir Henry Smith. Within the pages of his From Constable to Commissioner, he purports to settle the matter of the Lusk Kidney once and for all:
I made over the kidney to
the police surgeon, instructing him to consult with the most
eminent men in the Profession, and to send me a report
without delay. I give the substance of it. The renal artery
is about three inches long. Two inches remained in the
corpse, one inch was attached to the kidney. The kidney left
in the corpse was in an advanced state of Bright's Disease;
the kidney sent me was in an exactly similar state. But what
was of far more importance, Mr Sutton, one of the senior
surgeons at the London Hospital, whom Gordon Brown asked to
meet him and another surgeon in consultation, and who was one
of the greatest authorities living on the kidney and its
diseases, said he would pledge his reputation that the kidney
submitted to them had been put in spirits within a few hours
of its removal from the body thus effec-ually disposing of
all hoaxes in connection with it. 9
Sadly, the Major does not enjoy an unblemished reputation for veracity. He was known to his contemporaries as a charming raconteur and entertaining fellow, but one who tended to play somewhat fast and loose with the truth. Several stories in his memoirs are palpably untrue. One story in which he said he chased after the Ripper - and was supposedly "five minutes" behind the killer - is complete eyewash. While his reputation for veracity should not immediately prejudice us against Smith's account of the kidney, we should bear it in mind.
Let us begin, therefore, with the matter of the renal artery. The left renal artery is, indeed, generally 2-3 inches long, save in cases of gross abnormality. Beyond this, however, we cannot go. Smith is our only source for the comparative lengths of renal artery in the Lusk Kidney and Eddowes' body. Dr Frederick Gordon Brown, who conducted Eddowes' post-mortem and testified at her inquest, contented himself with remarking only that "the left renal artery was cut through." 10 It is true, of course, that the Telegraph of 20 October stated: ". . .it is asserted that only a small portion of renal artery adheres to the kidney, while in the case of the Mitre-square victim, a large portion of this artery adhered to the body [,]" 11 but Dr Brown himself, interviewed by the Star of the East on 22 October, noted: "As has been stated, there is no portion of renal artery adhering to [the kidney], it having been trimmed up,so consequently, there could be no correspondence established between the portion of the body from which it was cut." 12
Taking into consideration Dr Brown's familiarity with Eddowes' body and his denial of any renal artery remaining with the Lusk Kidney, in contrast to an anonymous assertion from the press and the anecdotal statement by Major Smith, the weight of evidence would appear to be against the famous "one inch" of renal artery.
What, then, of the Bright's disease, which we are told infected both the Lusk Kidney and Eddowes= remaining right kidney? The condition of "Bright's disease" received its name from Richard Bright, an English internist and pathologist who first described the symptoms of this ailment in 1827. Today, it is more commonly and specifically called "chronic glomerulonephritis;" in 1888, however, the term was a catchall applied to a collection of various signs and symptoms of kidney disease emanating from a variety of different causes, one of which was thought to be the excessive intake of alcohol. It should be noted for the purposes of our discussion here that in 1888 "Bright's disease" was also used as a synonym for "nephritis," which is a nonsuppurative inflammation of the kidneys. This was not uncommon among the poor and destitute of the East End, and it would not be at all surprising were Catherine Eddowes to have suffered from this condition. 13
Dr Brown's post-mortem states that he found Eddowes' "right kidney pale, bloodless with slight congestion of the base of the pyramids." N. P. Warren notes that such a description clearly indicates Bright's disease; unfortunately, not all medical opinion is in agreement on this point, and we cannot yet take it as given that Eddowes suffered from this condition. Of course, even were it proven beyond doubt that she did, it does not allow us to infer the existence of such disease in the Lusk Kidney. 14
We are once again confronted with a statement made only by Major Smith. He does not tell us who prepared the report presented to him which indicated bilateral Bright's disease (although the term Athe police surgeon@ may be an oblique reference to Dr Brown), and the surviving descriptions of the Lusk Kidney provide us only with the frustratingly vague nomenclature of "distinct marks of disease" and "ginny kidney." Dr Brown's previously quoted 22 October interview is of no help here; he only notes in passing that the kidney showed "no trace of decomposition." The most likely version of Dr Openshaw's comments also make no mention of disease; in fact, the only known references to disease in the Lusk Kidney are in the 19 October Daily Telegraph and in Major Smith's memoirs, neither of which can be regarded as entirely trustworthy.
And what of the statement that Mr Sutton, the senior surgeon, pledged his reputation that the kidney had been placed in spirits within hours of its removal from Eddowes' tortured remains? Henry Sutton was a senior surgeon at the London Hospital in 1888. He is not, however, mentioned in any of the surviving contemporary accounts of the investigation of the Lusk Kidney. Neither in any writings or remarks of Dr Brown B who supposedly asked to meet him in consultation B not by Swanson or McWilliams, nor even by the Gentlemen of the Press. We find Dr Sutton and his confident opinion only in the pages of Major Smith's memoirs. If he made any report on the kidney, it has not been found. Perhaps there was such a report; perhaps, too, his participation was a bit of dramatic license on the part of Smith. We do not know. We will not know unless independent proof of Sutton's pronouncements turns up, and until then he and Major Smith must be set aside.
1. The Lusk Kidney was human.
2. It came from a woman.
3. It came from a person approximately 45 years old.
4. It had been extracted from the body within three weeks of its examination.
5. It came from an alcoholic.
6. It was severely affected by Bright's disease.
7. It had approximately 1 inch of renal artery adhering to it. 15
The Lusk Kidney was human. This would appear to be beyond reasonable doubt. Were the Lusk Kidney to be presented to a modern pathologist, he would determine its origin either through karyotyping (by looking at the chromosomes) or genotyping (looking at the genes within the chromosomes). However, in 1888 neither type of analysis was known, and examination of the kidney's to determine its human origins was by visual and morphological means, i.e., through the form and structure of the organ.
No medical man who examined the kidney considered it to be anything but human. The only dissenting opinion came from Dr William Sedgwick Saunders, the Medical Officer and Public Analyst for the City of London. In the Liverpool Daily Post of 20 October, he was quoted as saying:
It is a pity some people
have not got the courage to say they don't know. You may take
it that there is no difference whatever between the male and
female kidney. As for those in animals, they are similar, the
cortical substance is the same, and the structure only
differs in shape. I think it would be quite possible to
mistake it for a pig's. 16
It came from a woman. As with point 1, this would be impossible to tell in 1888 other than through gross morphology. In general, the female kidney is smaller and lighter than the male, but in the case of the Lusk Kidney, we must take into consideration that it was not a whole kidney and that it may have been constricted as a result of Bright's Disease. These two factors make identification of sex extremely difficult. As we have seen, once the kidney was determined to be human, thought immediately turned to Catherine Eddowes' murder. We must consider the possibility that her death and the "From hell" letter influenced many of those who wrote about the kidney, presuming it to be female because the letter said that it was. The verdict on this point should be "not proven."
It came from a person approximately 45 years old Even despite the great medical strides made in the 20th century, a modern doctor would no more be able to answer this question than could his Victorian colleague. N. P. Warren points out that a rough guess as to age might be possible based on the condition of arteries remaining in the kidney, but such an absolute determination of age "is altogether too precise." He also notes that "a kidney may shrink by up to 1cm in length between the ages of 30 and 70, [but] a Bright's kidney is pathologically constricted anyway." We must remember the popular tendency to immediately identify the Lusk Kidney with Eddowes' murder; combining such with the medical evidence, we can discard this point of identification. 17
It had been extracted from the body within three weeks of its examination. The Lusk Kidney was noted to have been "preserved" in spirits of wine. Leaving aside the question of whether such an agent pointed to a freshly slaughtered body or one from a dissection room, the fact of preservation speaks against such a precise determination of time; we should also note that the initial mention of "preservation" comes from the already-suspect Aarons interview. Further to this point, we may look at Dr Brown's previously quoted Star of the East interview, during which he informed the reporter that:
As it exhibits no trace of
decomposition, when we consider the length of time that has
elapsed since the commission of the murder, we come to the
conclusion that the possibility is slight of its being a
portion of the murdered woman of Mitre Square. 18
It was severely affected by Bright's disease. As has been noted, the reported condition of Eddowes' right kidney has led to the conclusion that she may have suffered from Bright's disease. But, in lieu of a comprehensive, contemporary medical description of the Lusk Kidney, we cannot presume that it, too, manifested signs of such disease. Our only source for the diagnosis is Major Smith. This point is not proven, but is possible.
It had approximately 1 inch of renal artery adhering to it. Our sources for this point of identification are Major Smith and the Daily Telegraph of 20 October. Both appear to be trumped by Dr Brown's statement that the Lusk Kidney had been "trimmed up," and as he was in the midst of examining the organ when he said this, we might take this as definitive. Yet perhaps the verdict on this point should be a very guarded "possible," bearing in mind that the kidney had passed at the least from Lusk to Reed to Openshaw to Abberline before being examined by Brown. It must remain a possibility (though no more than a remote one) that the renal artery was "trimmed up" before Brown saw it
1. Collection of Stewart P. Evans.
2. Star, October 19, 1888.
3. HO 144/221/A49301C, folios 169-170. 4
4. HO 144/221/A49301C, folio 192.
5. Star, 19 October 1888; Eastern Post and City Chronicle, 20 October 1888.
6. Star, 20 October, 1888; Daily Telegraph, 20 October 1888.
7. Daily Telegraph, 19 October 1888.
8. N. P. Warren, "A Postal Kidney," The Criminologist 13(1), Spring 1989:12-15.
9. Smith, From Constable to Commissione: The Story of Sixty Years, Most of Them Misspent, Chatto & Windass, London, 1910, pp. 154-55.
10. Inquest deposition of Dr Brown, 4 October 1888, Corporation of London Public Records Office, ff. 14-21.
11. Daily Telegraph, 20 October 1888.
12. Star of the East, 22 October 1888.
13. Warren, ibid.; Richard Whittington-Egan, A Casebook on Jack the Ripper, Wildy and Sons, London, 1975, pp. 59-60. 14. Warren, ibid.
15. Warren, ibid.
16. Liverpool Daily Post, 20 October 1888.
17. Warren, ibid.
18. Star of the East, 22 October 1888.
The author wishes thanks
Stewart P. Evans, Thomas Ind, MD, and Wayne Wivell, MD,
for their generous contributions and advice during the writing of this essay.