LONDON — It is the greatest whodunit in British history. For nearly 130 years, writers, criminologists, historians and amateur sleuths have pondered the identity of Jack the Ripper, the serial killer who stalked the East End of London in the autumn of 1888, butchering women in a series of macabre and brutal murders.
The sheer number and celebrity of those who have been accused of the crimes, and the fact they have remained unsolved, has ensured the Ripper remains firmly embedded in the British psyche. Aside from largely anonymous suspects — such as a fish porter at Billingsgate Market, a Whitechapel barber and a Russian doctor described by Scotland Yard detectives as “a homicidal maniac” — the artist Walter Sickert, Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll, Sir Winston Churchill’s father, Randolph, and Queen Victoria’s doctor, surgeon and eldest grandson have all come under suspicion of being Jack the Ripper.
The Ripper himself is the subject of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction. “Ripperologists” can choose from at least three magazines devoted to his murderous reign, and tourists to London can visit the controversial Jack the Ripper Museum. Such is his notoriety that readers of the BBC History Magazine have voted Jack the Ripper the “worst Briton” in history.
Five women — the so-called “canonical victims” — are generally accepted to have fallen victim to the Ripper during his 12-week killing spree (some believe a number of other murders outside of this time-frame, possibly up to a dozen, may also have been attributable to him). But it is the location of the crimes in which they lost their lives — Whitechapel, a poverty-wracked slum in London’s East End — which, a newly published study of the case claims, offers the most important clue not just as to whodunit, but why.
Described at the time of the murders as “a fragment of Poland torn off from Central Europe and dropped haphazard into the heart of Britain,” Whitechapel and its surrounding neighborhoods stood at the center of the huge late 19th century influx of Jewish immigration into Britain.
In many parts of the East End, Jews constituted a majority of the local population; that number was almost certainly much higher around the streets where the Ripper struck. Sunday Magazine labeled the area “the Jewish colony in London.”
Thus, believes “Jewbaiter Jack The Ripper: New Evidence & Theory” author Stephen Senise, “the setting of the tale is no mere coincidence… it is fundamental in being able to put together what happened.”
An Australian, Senise has been captivated by the Ripper case since childhood.
“Australia was quite isolated when I was growing up,” he explains, “so the very idea of old London Town came with a fair bit of fascination attached. The notion of this dark story, set in 1888 among the London slums, just pulled me in.”
Reading about the case in adulthood, he became increasingly aware of “the anti-Semitic overtones permeating key parts of the story.”
As Senise acknowledges, Jews have featured in the Ripper story from the outset. But they were, he believes, neither simple bystanders nor — as some have later claimed — potential culprits, but central to a methodical and elaborate attempt to stir the already simmering pot of anti-Semitism.
Certainly, the atmosphere for Jews in the autumn of 1888 was sulfurous. Newspapers’ letters pages regularly contained attacks on “pauper foreigners” who were “a pest and a menace to the native born East-Ender.” The trade unions called for tough limits on immigration as elements of the labor movement denounced “Rothschild leeches.” Rabble-rousing politicians railed against “overcrowded” England becoming “the human ashpit for the refuse population in the world,” while physical attacks on Jews were not unknown.
The concerns about immigration did not stem simply from ingrained anti-Semitism. Even when harshly expressed, legitimate concerns about “sweated labor” — in which Jews, working long hours for low pay in poor conditions, undercut the position of native Britons — pointed to the fact that both migrants and indigenous workers were subject to exploitation.
Nonetheless, as Senise argues, the tensions between newly arrived Jews and elements of the British workforce were “essentially one-sided, directed at an easy group of scapegoats.” Newspapers began to warn of “Judenhetz [systematic persecution of the Jews] brewing in East London.”
This was the combustible mix, Senise theorises, that Jack the Ripper was determined to set light to. Ironically, the fuse may have been lit by the fact that a parliamentary inquiry into sweated labor — one of two examining issues related to Jewish immigration — had announced that it would shift its focus away from the East End of London at the end of its autumn session.
However inadvertent, Senise suggests, the committee’s widely reported announcement “had the effect of setting the clock ticking and turning the spotlight on.” It would prove the “deathknell” for a number of impoverished women whose murders the Ripper intended to use in his “bloody campaign to try and target the standing of the Jewish community and close the door to Jewish immigration.”
The terror commenced in the early hours of Friday, August 31, 1888, with the discovery of the grotesquely mutilated body of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, a 42-year-old alcoholic prostitute, just off of Whitechapel Road. A week later, on Saturday, September 8, the Ripper struck again, murdering Annie Chapman in the early hours of the morning. Once again, his target was a heavy-drinking, middle-aged prostitute, and, once again too, her body had been horribly mutilated.
As the Ripper intended, almost immediately the finger of suspicion for the “Whitechapel murders” began to point at the Jews. A possible witness suggested she had seen Chapman with a “foreign” man.
Even before the discovery of a leather apron near to her body, the press was speculating about the potential identity of the killer. Nicknamed “Leather Apron,” this “sinister” knife-carrying figure was described in one newspaper as “a Jew or of Jewish parentage, his face being of a marked ‘Hebrew type.’”
On the day Chapman’s body was discovered, the press later reported, “young roughs” began to threaten the local Jewish population. Cries of “down with the Jews” were heard, suggested a newspaper which headlined its report of the disturbances “A Riot Against the Jews.”
None too subtly, the coroner examining Chapman’s case suggested the murderer had displayed “Judas-like approaches.” Police hauled John Pizer, a second generation Polish Jew, into custody on suspicion of being “Leather Apron,” releasing him when his alibi was shown to be irrefutable.
‘Here was a native local who knew exactly what he was doing’
“I believe that the anti-Jewish rioting which broke out in the East End in direct response to the murders was consistent with Jack the Ripper’s intentions,” says Senise. “Here was a native local who knew exactly what he was doing, the community’s paranoias, its raw nerves and exposed sinews.”
On the night of the final Saturday of September, the Ripper carried out his most audacious killings. The double murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes left a further trail of clues as to his anti-Semitic motives. The locations of the attacks were chosen with care. Stride was attacked in a yard where a radical Yiddish newspaper was printed and published which was, in turn, next to a working men’s club frequented by Jewish socialists. Eddowes was murdered in Mitre Square, in close proximity to the capital’s Great Synagogue.
Senise argues the evening also provided the only two “near indisputable” pieces of communication from Jack the Ripper. The content of both were highly revealing and purposefully so. As an FBI report about Jack the Ripper carried out in 1988 on the 100th anniversary of the killings suggested, when serial killers make public statements about their crimes, “they generally provide information relative to their motivation.”
The first came as a man thought to be the Ripper was spotted attempting to assault a woman, later identified as Stride. A passer-by, Israel Schwartz, subsequently told police that he was scared off from intervening after the killer shouted “Lipski” at him, a local anti-Semitic term of abuse recalling a Hungarian Jew who had been hanged for murdering his wife the previous year.
The second came after he had murdered Eddowes when police discovered a bloody item of her clothing underneath freshly scrawled graffiti. The words — “the Juwes are the men that Will not be Blamed for nothing” — had been written on a block of flats on Goulston Street, most of whose residents were Jews. On the orders of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, the graffiti was wiped clean before daybreak; a sign of the authorities’ concern that the embers of the anti-Semitic fire which had led to the “riot against the Jews” should not be stoked further, as the Ripper clearly intended they should be.
The brutality of the murders was designed not simply to shock, but also to tap that most ancient of anti-Semitic slanders, the “blood libel.” Two infamous European “blood libel” cases — the killing of a teenage girl at Tisza Eszlar in Hungary in 1883 and the murder of an allegedly pregnant young woman in Poland in 1881 — had received much attention in the British press in the years prior to the Ripper’s attacks.
Two infamous European ‘blood libel’ cases had received much attention in the British press in the years prior to the Ripper’s attacks.
Even when dismissed, the notion of the “blood libel” was frequently a feature of the reporting, particularly after the killing of Stride and Eddowes. These cases from the continent, Senise suggests, “gave the murderer the basis for his plot,” allowing him to appropriate “a racist slander, every bit as dangerous as a weapon.”
The press swiftly took the bait Jack the Ripper had laid, alluding to the fact that, as one newspaper put it, one would need to go to “the wilds of Hungary” to find crimes “more sickening and revolting” than those which had been committed in Whitechapel.
There was, indeed, some speculation at the time of the murders that, as the Jewish Chronicle put it in October 1888, “a deliberate attempt to connect the Jews with the Whitechapel murders” was underway.
‘Early on during the investigation, the police did countenance that someone was trying to frame the Jewish community’
“Early on during the investigation, the police did countenance that someone was trying to frame the Jewish community,” says Senise.
But Senise does not simply have a motive — he also has a suspect, a man who would reveal himself after the Ripper claimed his fifth victim, Mary Jane Kelly, just over a month after he had last struck.
The killing was his most brutal and his victim much younger and more attractive than those he had hitherto targeted. Kelly’s killing, speculates Senise, may have been intended to draw comparisons with the much reported recent grisly murder of two teenage sisters in Moravia, a crime which had parallels with those in Hungary and Poland which the press had previously salivated over.
On the day that the inquest into Kelly’s murder was concluded — timing that was possibly far from accidental, as it allowed his story to avoid scrutiny by the coroner — George Hutchinson, a young man in his late 20s, walked into the Commercial Road police station, claiming to have seen Kelly with a man on the night of her killing.
His account provided color and detail no other purported witness could match, a fact that almost immediately provoked skepticism. Crucially, however, Hutchinson said that the man he had seen Kelly cavorting with prior to her death was “of Jewish appearance.” Later expanding his story for the press, Hutchinson slyly claimed that he had previously seen the man on Petticoat Lane — described in one contemporary book as “the stronghold of hard-shell Judaism” — and a reference that few readers at the time would not have grasped the significance of.
Hutchinson’s statements, Senise asserts, cleverly revived elements of the “Leather Apron” story, threw potentially useful chaff into the police inquiry should he himself become a suspect, and — in contradiction to the other principal eyewitness account from that night and, indeed, all others made in connection to the five killings — suggested Kelly’s attacker was a Jew.
Senise has painstakingly tracked Hutchinson’s movements. An underemployed laborer, he lived at the Victoria Home for Working Men on Commercial Street, close to Petticoat Lane in the heart of the Jewish community. The salubrious Victoria Home, moreover, was strategically placed in terms of the places where the Ripper struck, as well as the pubs and boarding houses where he may well have spied upon, and staked out, his victims. Hutchinson’s depiction of the man he supposedly saw with Kelly on the night of her death as a wealthy Jew, Senise claims, gives an insight into the racial and class hatred which drove his crimes.
However, when helping his daughter with a history project looking at key witnesses to the Ripper’s crimes, Senise uncovered a trail which brought him rather closer to home than he had expected.
Hutchinson, he is confident, fled the scene of his crimes the following summer, using the opportunity created by the Great London Dock Strike of 1889 to join a union-busting crew aboard a ship bound for Australia.
Unsurprisingly, Hutchinson then disappeared, re-emerging seven years later, Senise has discovered, when he was convicted and jailed for sexually assaulting two young boys.
The photograph and physical description of Prisoner 1166 he uncovered from the New South Wales State Archives bears an uncanny resemblance not only to sketches of Hutchinson made at the time he interjected himself into the case following Kelly’s murder — but also to many of the witness statements collected by police in their hunt for Jack the Ripper. The case, Senise now hopes, “has finally started to give up its ghosts.”