A Detailed History of Jack the Ripper

Jack the Ripper is the name given to one of history’s most famous serial killers, who is believed to have at least five victims in the Whitechapel area of London from 1888 onwards.

The true identity of the killer was never revealed, and this classic murder mystery has had people hooked all over the globe ever since.

The East End in Victorian times

The Jack the Ripper murders are thought to personify the East End during the Victorian times. An influx of immigrants from Ireland, Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe meant that London was packed to the rafters, and as housing conditions fell, poverty rose.

Crime, alcoholism and prostitution were all common in the East End at the time, and gave it a rather unsavoury reputation as a den of sin and immorality, a reputation which came to be represented by the brutal murders of Jack the Ripper.

If you happen to be in London, you can join a Free Walking Tour on the East End to discover what it was like trying to survive in here during the time of Jack the Ripper.

Why is he so famous?

Costumes, films, series, books, comics, free tours in London… the rippermania seems to have no end!

Multiple films and TV series have used Jack the Ripper as inspiration (such as the BBC’s Ripper Street), and there are hundreds of theories about the true identity of the killer, so why has this one case still got us talking almost 130 years later?

After all, the Ripper only killed five victims (but more on that later…) so he’s hardly the most prolific serial killer of all time, so why do we all know his name?

One reason for this is that the newspapers of the time absolutely loved the story. The killings received extensive coverage both at home and abroad, and people the world over were aware of the goings on in London.

Certain cases just grab the public’s attention and everyone sits up and takes notice, much like the O.J. Simpson case in the 90s. The name Jack the Ripper (which was probably conceived by one of these newspapers) solidified the killer’s infamy and made him a cult figure. Perhaps more importantly, the killings came to be seen as typical of the social chaos and disorder or the Victorian times, and the East End of London in particular.

Who were his victims?

There are five victims of the killer who are widely believed to have been killed by Jack the Ripper over a period of just 12 weeks. The victims were all prostitutes, and all but one was brutally mutilated, leading to speculation the killer had some kind of surgical skill and was perhaps a doctor or butcher. They are:

  • Mary Nichols: August 31st 1888 – Discovered in Buck’s Row (now Durward Street, Whitechapel)
  • Annie Chapman: September 8th 1888 – Discovered in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street, Spitalfields
  • Elizabeth Stride: September 30th 1888 – Discovered in Dutfield’s Yard off Berner Street (Now Henriques Street, Whitechapel)
  • Catherine Eddowes: September 30th 1888 – Discovered in Mitre Square in the City of London
  • Mary Kelly: November 9th 1888 – Discovered in her home at 13 Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street, Spitalfields

However, while most believe that the Ripper either died, was imprisoned, or emigrated after these initial five murder, the official police file lists a further four victims:

  • Rose Mylett: December 19th 1888 – Discovered in Clarke’s Yard, High Street, Poplar
  • Alice McKenzie: July 9th 1889 – Discovered in Castle Alley, Whitechapel
  • The Pinchin Street torso: September 10th 1889 – Discovered in Pinchin Street, Whitechapel
  • Frances Coles: February 13th 1891 – Discovered in Swallow Gardens, Whitechapel

Was he ever caught?

The extensive police investigation, its files and the widespread press coverage have left us with a very detailed view of the investigation that took place. Over 2,000 people were interviewed as part of the investigation, although it appears that the police never came close to catching perpetrator. Forensics and police technology were nowhere near what they are today, and the East End was a labyrinth of alleyways and ginnels which made it very hard to patrol.

Amazingly, over a hundred potential suspects have been identified. It’s largely believed that the killer was an educated, upper-class man, although this may be due to the mistrust and fear of the rich at the time, and the belief that they exploited the poor. The extensive list of suspects includes almost anyone who was evenly remotely related to the case, as well as some rather outlandish ones who were almost definitely not involved such as Queen Victoria’s grandson and Lewis Carroll.

The name which is most commonly linked to the murders is that of a lawyer, Montague John Druitt, who was found dead in the Thames shortly after the last murder, although there isn’t enough evidence to definitively name him as the Ripper. You can read more about Montague and some of the many other suspects in this piece from The Telegraph.

The fact that the killer was never brought to justice only furthers the aura of mystery surrounding the case and is a large part of why it remains so popular today!

The letters

Another part of the case which has drawn particular interest is a series of letters, reportedly sent by the killer to the police and newspapers. The famous of these letters was titled ‘Dear Boss’ and bore the signature, Jack the Ripper, giving the killer his legendary moniker.

Although, chances are that this letter was not actually sent by the killer, and rather by a journalist to create interest in the case. And they certainly succeeded! The sending of the letter led to hundreds of copycats which almost brought the police investigation to its knees.

The Ripper’s London

Amazingly, much of the East End remains the same today and you can see it all on a Free Jack the Ripper tour! This tour takes in many Ripper-related sites, such as Gunthorpe Street where Martha Tabram took her final steps with her killer and the Ten Bells pub where many of the victims were known to drink.

However, some of the sites aren’t quite the way the Ripper would remember them! For example, the doorway where the police found graffiti supposedly left by the killer on Goulston Street is now home to the Happy Days chippy! Although we’re over 125 years on, walking around the areas where the murders occurred is still a spine-chilling experience, and one we recommend to anyone with a fascination for the Victorian era.

Interest in the Ripper case only continues to grow, with a growing number of amateur detectives attempting to rearrange the evidence and look for new clues to finally identify the most notorious serial killer of all time.

If you are interested in learning more about British history and pop culture, check out the many free tours in London departing every day!

Free Tours in Your Language