It is undeniably one of the most vexing, terrifying mysteries in the annals of true crime: the identity of Jack the Ripper, notorious serial killer who murdered women in 1800s London.
Below is my interview with author Mick Priestley, who has written an excellent book on the case, titled One Autumn in Whitechapel. Included are the questions I received from readers and followers of my Instagram; thanks to all of you for some great questions!
And thank you, Mick, for your time!
Who are you? Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m Mick Priestley and I’m the author of “Jack the Ripper : One Autumn In Whitechapel”; the definitive account of the Jack the Ripper case. I’m also the tour guide for the walking tours here in Whitechapel!
In your own words: what were the “Jack the Ripper murders”?
The ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders were a series of murders that took place in Whitechapel, in the East End of London, England between the 7th of August, 1888 and the 13th of February 1891. There were eight of them in total, and the killer was never caught, but he was given the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ after a series of taunting letters arrived at newspaper offices.
How did Jack the Ripper kill his victims? What was his “modus operandi”?
His modus operandi was to meet lone, desperate women (typically prostitutes) in the street in the middle of the night, entice them to a secluded spot with the offer of money, and then attack them. His victims were found showing signs of strangulation, and all but one of them had had their throats cut violently. After the fatal injury had been inflicted the killer would typically lift his victim’s clothing and mutilate her body with his knife, and then pose the body to await its discovery before running from the scene.
How did you yourself become interested in this case?
I’ve always been fascinated by true crime, and the ‘Jack the Ripper’ case is the most notorious case of them all. The first serial killing case I ever read about was the Richard Ramirez case, and even the Whitechapel murders were referenced at numerous points throughout the book. Ever since then it has fascinated me; I suppose mainly on account of the mystery, but the psychology of it fascinates me too. There are endless numbers of murder cases to read about today, but it’s rare that one matches the Whitechapel case for its mystery, its violence, and the brazen behaviour of the offender.
How did you initially begin researching the topic?
I first started reading as many books as I could find on the subject, but was disappointed to find that so many of them are written differently from books on other true crime cases. The overwhelming majority of them are filled with inaccuracies, nonsense and conspiracy theories, but even the better ones seemed to lack so much information, and so many details that were important to understanding the case. I was determined to find out more, and so through spending time at various archives, libraries and websites was able to start piecing the case together entirely from the original files and reports, to find out what REALLY happened.
What was Whitechapel like in those days? Paint us a mental picture of the place!
The East End of the Victorian period was an extremely poor slum district, filled with overcrowded lodging houses, and it was considered to be the worst area in all of London. Desperation, homeless and starvation were a constant threat for many living in the area – and without steady employment, minimum wage of any form of a benefits system, crime had become very commonplace. Fights and stabbings were common, and some 1200 women had been forced onto the streets as prostitutes.
What do you think about the police work done on the case at the time? Did the police do all they could?
Some people like to suggest that the police were incompetent, and that that led to the killer getting away with it, but when you read the original files that wasn’t really the case at all. With no CCTV, fingerprints or DNA technology, catching a serial killer of strangers in an area with a disproportionate number of suspicious characters would be difficult – and so in the absence of any solid clues large amounts of extra police had been brought into Whitechapel, from all across London, in the hope of finding him as he stalked his way around the area.
It’s not that unusual that a serial killer will manage to remain uncaught, either. Even today I think something like one in every three murders goes unsolved, so it’s difficult to criticize a Victorian police force for failing to catch an anonymous killer, under such circumstances, and especially in a time when such crimes were less understood.
The victims were prostitutes. Do you think this had an effect on the mentality of the police towards the importance of the investigation, as some have claimed?
I don’t. The case had generated publicity like no case ever before, and that, coupled with the graphic violent details of the crimes themselves had put the police under enormous pressure to catch the killer. Some newspapers did say things like that at the time, of course, but as the case dragged on many of them were regularly hostile towards the police force anyway.
Who was the lead investigator? How did he become involved with the case?
After the murder of Martha Tabram on the 7th of August, 1888, Edmund Reid of Whitechapel’s H Division/Criminal Investigation Department had been appointed to lead the case. Until the previous year, the case would have gone to Inspector Frederick Abberline, who had worked within the area for fifteen years but been promoted in 1887 to a different position, and taken out of Whitechapel. Abberline was quickly brought back to assist with the case anyway after the murder of Mary Ann Nichols, but it was Edmund Reid that was there from the beginning until the end, and was directly involved with the investigation into each of the murders.
There is a new book out there called “The Five”, where the author apparently claims that the victims were NOT prostitutes. What do you think?
I haven’t read the book, so I wouldn’t really be able to say much about it. Does it say that NONE of the victims were prostitutes? If it says that, it’s wrong At Catherine Eddowes’s inquest some of those that knew her stated she was NOT a prostitute, but Elizabeth Stride had a prior criminal record for prostitution, and Mary Ann Nichols was shown in a courtroom by her ex-husband to have been working as a prostitute…anyone with an account on an archives website could look up the original reports and see things like that.
You talk about these fake coins found at the scenes of the crimes as a key piece of evidence. I have to admit, I’d ever heard of these before! Tell us more about them!
When Annie Chapman was murdered, on the 8th of September 1888 on Hanbury Street, police reported that two farthings had been found, ‘polished brightly’ to look like they were more valuable, lying on the ground beside her body – and the next day, a woman named Emily Walter then came forward to police to say that she had met a man earlier that night, in the same area, and for the purpose of prostitution followed him onto the same street before he violently attacked her. She got away, but similarly realized that the money he’d given her was similarly fake.
Other women had also reported the same thing, and, following the murder of Catherine Eddowes, Detectives from the City of London police were specifically looking for men, across the East End, who were ripping off prostitutes with fake coins. After the murder of Alice MacKenzie, on the 17th of July 1889, police responding to the scene had found another one beneath her body – and police believed that it had been given to her somewhere along the dark passage from Whitechapel High Street that led to her murder spot. He’d passed it off, they believed, as a sixpence.
What do you think is the best film on these murders?
All of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ movies that I know of tend to be based on any number of conspiracy theories and fictional books… So they’re fun to watch, but don’t really have a lot in common with the facts of the case.
I think From Hell is probably the best ‘Jack the Ripper’ movie made (although it’s almost entirely fictional!) I could recommend a terrible one perhaps? You should watch “Terror at London Bridge” with David Hasselhoff.
Below are the questions I received from followers and readers.
What do you think about Charles Allen Lechmere as a suspect?
Lechmere has become a suspect only recently, but the evidence against him is pretty thin. It’s basically this: when he discovered the body of Mary Ann Nichols, a man named Robert Paul came walking up behind him. It was so dark, however, that they failed to notice that her throat was cut, walked on, and found a policeman passing by on nearby Baker’s Row. Cross allegedly told him that a policeman was standing by the body, and that he should go down to join him; but no policeman had been there when they left. When asked why he said that, Lechmere said that he hadn’t said that at all – and had simply said that there was a woman lying there, and that he thought she might be dead. He had also given his name to police as Charles Cross, when he was actually named Lechmere. The theory is that Robert Paul disturbed him while committing the (graphic, violent, bloody) murder, and that, startled, he pretended that he had just found her… but then he walked straight up to a policeman immediately afterwards to point it out, and nobody ever thought him suspicious.
What do you make of the theory that the killings were committed by some kind of a group of activists who were looking to bring attention to the conditions among the poor in Whitechapel?
That was a theory early in the case, after the murder of Mary Ann Nichols. With Whitechapel being such a high-crime area, there were a number of knife-wielding gangs in the area, and a woman named Emma Smith had been murdered by one, on Osborn Street that April. The idea was that some sort of gang in the Whitechapel area was extorting prostitutes in the area, and murdering those that didn’t pay them. One theory was of a ‘high rip gang’, whoever they supposedly were, after some people had written to the newspapers with their theories. The police never believed that, though, and knew at the time that they were looking for one man – and quite a few people either met or saw the killer. He always fitted a similar description – he was white, 25-35 years old, stood 5’7-5’9” tall, had a small moustache, and spoke with an eastern European accent. Nobody ever reported seeing a gang.
Were these murders the Ripper’s “first rodeo”, or do you think he committed killing before these “canonized” victims?
I think he lived in the Whitechapel area, close by to the murder site of Martha Tabram, and that her murder, on the 7th of August 1888, was his first offence.
There were other attacks in the area, though, that I also think were possibly committed by the same man.
On the 3rd of April that year, four months before the murder of Martha Tabram in George Yard, a woman named Malvina Haynes had been attacked by a stranger near Leman Street railway station, and another woman had been taken to hospital after an unidentified man had followed her through Spitalfields in the middle of the night, and stabbed her in the forehead. I think if we were able to know everything about him, there would be other similar acts of violence in his past, increasing in severity, that built up to that moment in George Yard.
Has HH Holmes been ruled out as a suspect?
I think so. Nobody ever suggested him at the time, and he;s another one of those suspects that has only been suggested in the last few years. Police investigating the Jack the Ripper case firmly believed that the killer was a local man, living in the immediate area, and extremely familiar with all of the streets and passageways he was using to make his escape in the middle of the night. They believed he would drink in the local pubs, and after leaving at closing time would walk the area looking for potential victims. I don’t see how HH Holmes would have such local knowledge, and other women attacked by the killer all stated that he had an Eastern European accent.
The witness account of seeing a man attack a woman, the man calling out, and then a second man approaching the witness? Is there a connection? Is any of this reliable and does it point to a collaboration or is it unrelated?
That report came after the murder of Elizabeth Stride, from a man named Israel Schwartz. Schwartz told police that he had been heading home along Berner Street, where the murder took place, when he saw a man ahead of him, beside the murder spot, in the street with Elizabeth Stride – who grabbed her, and threw her to the ground. He tried to walk on, he said, but a second man was lighting a pipe on the other side of the road, and chased him, after the attacker looked towards him and shouted “Lipski!” at him – which, according to Schwartz, was an anti-semitic insult after a local Jewish man named Israel Lipski had been convicted of murder the year before. Speaking to reporters from the newspapers, however, Schwartz claimed instead that the second man had actually walked out of the pub on the corner, even though it was closed at the time, and pulled a knife on him. Police considered him to be a liar, he was never called to any inquest, and never appeared in the case again.
Is the shawl DNA viable?
No. The ‘DNA shawl’ theory first appeared a few years ago, by a man who claimed to have solved the case and named Aaron Kosminski as the killer. The shawl, however, is nonsense, and was never found at any Jack the Ripper crime scene – but, regardless, had already been tested for DNA anyway on a programme called “Jack the Ripper – the First Serial Killer” in the UK. The forensics team found no DNA traces on it.
When the ‘DNA’ claim was made, Sir Alex Jeff Jeffries, who has been knighted by the Queen for his contributions to DNA research, said it was nonsense, I believe the Smithsonian said was nonsense, and the guy making the claim won’t tell anyone how he achieved his results. On top of that, Aaron Kosminski was locked up in a psychiatric hospital before the end of the murders anyway, so it couldn’t possibly have been him, and he spoke only Yiddish, with no English at all, despite witnesses and survivors stating that the killer had spoken to them in English.
Which (if any) of the letters do you consider genuine?
There were literally hundreds of them altogether, arriving from all across London and the country at the time, and I don’t think any of them are genuine. It’s rare that a serial killer chooses to contact the press or authorities, and when they do they tend to include details only known to them, or give explanations for their actions or explain their motives – as to achieve their psychological gratification, or ‘thrill’ from sending the letter in the first place they need to know that you realize it IS the killer contacting you. The Zodiac Killer, for example, would go into great detail in his letters, and tell you why he was committing his crimes – as did Dennis Rader, David Berkowitz, etc. None of the Jack the Ripper letters do that. Usually, they all just follow a similar theme, and make wild statements or threats that could have been written by anyone. A lot of them are still interesting though!
It is often claimed that the killer’s precision might have been surgical. But could it more likely have a butcher or other trader skills man?
The ‘surgical skill’ thing is only a more recent belief! After the murder of Annie Chapman, Dr. Phillips conducted her postmortem, and stated that there was one injury to her abdomen that, he believed, must have been performed by someone with ‘some sort of anatomical knowledge’. Of the numerous other doctors involved in the case, though, nobody ever agreed with him, and Phillips was shown to be wrong on a few other occasions about other conclusions he had come to in his investigations.
In the movies etc., the killer is often portrayed as some sort of rogue surgeon or medical man, but while the exception of that ONE time from Phillips, the doctors investigating the case all believed the killer to have no medical or surgical training at all – “not even the skill of a butcher or a horse slaughterer”, it was said. The wounds were jagged, inflicted through force, and the killer, it was stated, had performed them as quick as he could before running away.
Do you consider that Jack is probably one of many poorly accounted or totally unaccounted people in London living in squalor and disrepute? That there isn’t a person ever recorded who was Jack?
I think that Jack the Ripper was an unremarkable young man living within the Whitechapel slums – though not in a night-by-night lodging house, and fitted in like everyone else in the area. Police believed that he would drink in the local pubs, and when he was in there, any number of people will have met him and spoken to him, and not thought him to be suspicious. Other women in the area will have met him, or propositioned him, and also felt non-threatened by him as he seemed to be just like everybody else. I do believe that he did in fact make it into history though, into the archives, and then finally into my book!
Will this case ever be solved? Through DNA or somehow?
Not with DNA. Nothing still exists that would have been in any way suitable for a DNA test, and even if it did, way too much time has passed to reasonably expect that it could somehow be in a suitable condition. While the original files and reports still remain, all of the physical evidence is long gone. If there wasn’t an immediately obvious reason to keep, say, Annie Chapman’s coat, items like that will have been destroyed shortly after the crime took place.
Also, there are killers walking around right now who are getting away with it because the DNA testing isn’t good enough. I think that finally, however, after 133 years now, the case really has been solved!
Those were the reader questions. Thanks to all who sent them.
To cut to the chase: who do you think was Jack the Ripper?
Albert Bachert was Jack the Ripper. Born in 1860, he grew up in the Whitechapel area, and at the time of the murders was living by himself on Newnham Street, only moments away from every murder scene. He’s the right age, about the right height, he was from an Eastern European family, and he had a criminal record for the sorts of things serial killers are known to do today. He constantly injected himself into the investigation, claimed to have met and spoken to the killer, and told newspapers that he was writing numerous letters to his house to threaten him. He then arrived, uninvited, to the inquest of Frances Coles and demanded to be taken onto the jury, just as they were about to view her body in the mortuary, and caused such a scene when refused that the coroner threatened to have him removed from the building.
He also worked as a copper plate engraver, which means he will have had all of the tools at home to manipulate the fake coins, ‘machined around the edges’, that had been found at the crime scene, and was actually arrested and taken to court for passing fake coins, on two occasions, in 1889. If the crimes were happening today, he is absolutely the suspect that police would want to go and speak to.
Tell us a bit about your book! What can people expect to read in it?
Jack the Ripper – One Autumn in Whitechapel is the definite account of the Whitechapel murders – the most notorious case of all time. It took me almost four years to write, and it’s in in detail never done before – entirely from the original files and police reports, and, for the first time ever, really does name the man that did it.
Signed paperback copies are available for £11.99 at www.ripperworld.net, and there’s a Kindle version available for download, too!
Where can people keep up with your work?
The best place to find me is on Instagram, @mppriestley
Can people order a guided walking tour of the Ripper locations from you?
They sure can! If you head over to www.thejacktherippertour.com tickets are available there. If you might like to make sure that you’re on the tour with me you can send an email over on the site, and I’ll see you in Whitechapel!
And, finally, my regular questions I ask all my interviewees.
Your top 3 films?
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window
Dumb and Dumber
Robocop (the 1987 original)
Your top 3 albums?
Ozzy Osbourne – “Tribute”
Tommy Emmanuel – “Endless Road”
Alan Jackson – “Like Red on a Rose”
Your top 3 books?
“Alive” – by Piers Paul Reid
“The Ice Man” – by Philip Carlo
“Thinner” – by Stephen King