The East End of London in 1888 has a reputation for being a den of vices. Prostitution, gambling halls, and rowdy gangs purportedly gathered in the streets.
It was also home to, perhaps, the most famous serial killer of all.
Whether or not this was the truth about the East End as a whole, the Whitechapel area is now forever couched in those terms thanks to the murders committed by Jack the Ripper.
Most have heard of the legendary Jack the Ripper. The story of the Ripper — also labeled the “Whitechapel Murderer” or “The Leather Apron” — has evolved beyond one of an interesting, historical true crime story. Time, sensationalism and the lack of an actual culprit have created a mythical monster out of the man, whose story lives in reports and articles.
Theories as to his motives, identity and whether or not he possessed supernatural powers have been discussed for centuries. Some suggest he had an accomplice and an initial police report suggested the murders were the work of a gang. Though, there was never any true evidence to support this.
While the gruesome murders were most likely the work of one man, it is probable he had an accomplice — and the best accomplice that Jack could have had were the streets of Whitechapel themselves.
A SHADY NEIGHBORHOOD
At the end of the 19th century, Whitechapel was densely populated, and parts were little more than slums. Located next to the docks, the population was a mixture of native Englishmen and immigrants fresh off the boat. At that time, it was mostly Jewish immigration from Russia, Poland and Germany.
While there was initially sympathy for the Jews fleeing from economic crisis and persecution, by 1888 these sentiments had turned to resentment and fear. So, when a new and brutal murderer suddenly burst upon the scene, the British population began to blame the Jewish community, as obviously an Englishman could never commit such atrocities.
When the body of Mary Nichols was discovered on Aug. 31, 1888, Inspector Frederick Abberline was called in to consult. Abberline had recently been promoted out of the Whitechapel area, having spent over a decade patrolling its streets.
If Jack was using the streets to help cover his misdeeds, then Inspector Abberline was the one to navigate those same streets to stop him.
Whitechapel housed many desperate people. Life in 1888 was no picnic and prostitution was a growing business as the demand for a reprieve from the daily drudgery grew.
No one suspected anything amiss when a known “unfortunate,” as the women were called, was seen walking away with a man. The canonical five victims attributed to Jack the Ripper were female prostitutes. Whether or not he knew that choosing the lowest of the East End’s citizens was a helpful push from the streets themselves, it was not a bad choice if you wanted to ensure anonymity.
It was normal to see one of these women leaving the normal hustle and bustle with a man, and the proximity of the docks meant a steady rotation of customers.
Annie Chapman was found dead on Sept. 8, 1888, and on Sept. 30, 1888, the bodies of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were discovered. The number of murders linked to Jack the Ripper now stood at four.
The victims all had their throats slashed and their bodies mutilated.
The chaos among the residents of Whitechapel caused unrest in the streets. There were anti-Jew demonstrations and the tension was simmering, threatening to come to a boiling point. This unrest changed how the police dealt with their investigation.
As the police searched the area, they found a piece of Eddowes’ apron in front of a wall where the words “The Juwes are the men that will not be blamed for nothing,” were chalked, according to reports. Or perhaps it read, “The Juwes are not the men who will be blamed for nothing.”
Both versions were recorded in the inquest. Police Superintendent Thomas Arnold feared that if the residents of the East End learned that evidence was found in front of an inscription that implied the murderer was Jewish, the tension would erupt into riots.
Then two months later, on Nov. 9, Mary Jane Kelly was found dead.
Despite the aura of mystery that traditionally blurs the case, the investigation at the time was quite well documented.
Unfortunately for Abberline, and the rest of the East End police force, they couldn’t. Jack the Ripper was never caught, and although there are theories and legends by the hundreds, no conclusive evidence was ever found.
His identity is now likely lost to history. But, the story of his murders is not.
The timing of the murders was perfect, the undercurrent of xenophobia and resentment forced police to make choices that undermined crime scenes and divided their manpower. The location both provided the victims and hid the killer.
If Jack the Ripper had chosen a different section of London would he have been caught? Or would those streets have hidden him away as well?
We will never know who he was or why he committed such awful crimes, but Jack the Ripper, the Whitechapel Murderer, chose his accomplice well.
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