There’s a strong Sussex connection to one of the most notorious murderers in history. Jack the Ripper is the best-known name given to an unidentified serial killer who plied his grisly trade in the impoverished streets of London’s East End in 1888, writes David Arnold.
The very name ‘Jack’ may have been coined by the killer in person as it first appeared in a letter where the writer claimed to have committed the murders. Most likely the letter was a hoax but as Jack was never caught the jury must remain out. Within the official police files the killer was referred to as the ‘Whitechapel Murderer’.
Attacks typically involved local prostitutes whose throats were cut prior to abdominal mutilations. The removal of internal organs from at least three of the victims suggested that the killer had some knowledge of surgery.
Butchers, slaughterhouse workers and physicians were also on the suspect list. The police interviewed hundreds of such people but found none lacking a reasonable alibi. Lurid newspaper reports stirred up enormous public interest so everyone seemed to have a theory as to who the perpetrator might be. Though murder most foul was committed on a regular and major scale in and around the dreadful East End slums, just five victims – known as the ‘canonical five’ – are considered similar enough to be the work of the person we know as Jack the Ripper. Their names were Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. The Ripper’s calling card included deep throat slashes and horrible facial woundings as the trademark mutilations. A police investigation into 11 more savage murders committed in Whitechapel up to 1891 found no similarities connecting them to the murders of three years earlier. Today there are more than 100 theories about the Ripper’s identity with the names of several high society suspects in the mix.
Jack’s killing spree began on August 31 1888 and ended just two months later on November 9 when the eviscerated body of the final victim – Mary Jane Kelly – was found on her own bed. Her heart had been cut out. It is plain that the method of the murders must surely have caused the perpetrator to become covered in the blood and gore of the victims. How could such blood-drenched clothing not be noticed by someone in the East End’s tightly-packed teeming slums at some time soon after each killing?
Wynne Edwin Baxter, Lewes born and bred and the town’s first mayor, was the coroner who presided over each one of the Ripper inquests. He must have been immensely frustrated at failing to uncover the killer. At the inquest for Mary Ann Nichols, Baxter heard testimony from numerous witnesses and demonstrated his often blunt approach to questioning. The Daily Telegraph reported the following exchange – Baxter, to Henry Tomkins, horse slaughterer: “Are there any women about there?” Tomkins: “Oh! I know nothing about them, I don’t like ’em’.” Baxter: “I did not ask you whether you like them; I ask you whether there were any about that night.”
Baxter believed that the murderer was intent on acquiring certain female organs for sale to doctors. During the inquest into Annie Chapman’s murder, he said, “The body had not been dissected, but the injuries had been made by someone who had considerable anatomical skill. There were no meaningless cuts. The organ had been taken by one who knew where to find it, what difficulties he would have to contend against, and how he should use his knife so as to abstract the organ without injury to it.” The police did not agree with Baxter’s theory. At the end of the inquest he told the jury, “I congratulate you that your labours are now nearly completed. Although up to the present they have not resulted in the detection of any criminal, I have no doubt that if the perpetrator of this foul murder is eventually discovered, our efforts will not have been useless.”
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