The Police Investigation

Once it was realised that a maniac was on the loose, Scotland Yard was called in to coordinate the investigation. However, forensic science was primitive, the clues few and far between, and most suspects proved to be of little value.

The investigation into the Ripper murders was the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police, one of London’s two police forces. The other force, which was drawn into the murder hunt only with the death of Catherine Eddowes in Aldgate, was the City of London Police. This force patrols the capital’s ancient heart, the commercial square mile known as the city, and is answerable to the Lord Mayor. The Metropolitan Police is answerable to the Home Secretary.

Overall charge of the investigation was given to Detective Chief Inspector Donald Swanson of the Metropolitan Police, who was relieved of all other suites to coordinate the inquiries from Scotland Yard. Investigations in Whitechapel were conducted by Inspector Fred Abberline and Walter Andrews under the supervision of Chief Inspector Moore.

Among others who participated in the hunt for Jack the Ripper were a number of detectives specifically assigned to the task, principally Sergeant Thicke. Also involved was a young constable, Walter Dew, who later achieved fame when, in 1910, he boarded a ship off Canada to arrest Dr Hawley Crippen (Dew had been alerted by the captain who radioed his suspicions to England; this was the first time in history that a criminal suspect was caught by radio).

At the time of the murders, forensic science was very much in its infancy. It was not easy, if indeed it was possible at all, to distinguish between human and animal blood, and a search for other physical residues such as hair, sperm and saliva at the scene of the crime, was virtually non-existent. No fingerprints were taken either as the technique of fingerprinting was not used by Scotland Yard until 1901. On-the-spot analysis largely consisted of looking for clues, such as something dropped by the murderer.

Bodies found at the murder scene were removed to the mortuary as soon as possible and the site of the crime cleaned up. A doctor called to the scene was only required to state that the victim was dead. A more detailed examination of the body waited until a visit could be paid to the mortuary, often several hours after the body had been discovered. This is why the abdominal mutilation of the first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, was not found until the body was stripped in the mortuary.

Police investigators followed up whatever clues they had and sought to establish the victim’s final movements. Much of the same procedure is followed today. The Jack the Ripper investigation focused on tracing suspicious people seen at the time of the murders, looking into the whereabouts of people already known to the police and questioning the local prostitutes.

One of the earliest suspects was a young medical student, John Saunders. Little is known about him, except that he became insane and died in an asylum, but home office papers on the case show that, for a while, he was the subject of intense speculation in the corridors of power.

Another early police suspect was Michael Ostrog, who was described as a “Russian doctor” and a convict, who was frequently detained in a lunatic asylum. Ostrog may have come to the attention of the police because of his state of mind or perhaps he had attempted to commit a Ripper-like crime, but he was probably committed to an asylum because of his mental state in 1889 or 1893. The police, anyway, could not show he was in Whitechapel at the time of the murders.

After the murder of Annie Chapman, on 8th September 1888, talk on the streets was about a mysterious individual known as “Leather Apron” (The name Jack the Ripper had not yet been coined). “Leather Apron” was alleged to extort money from the prostitutes at knifepoint and threaten to “rip them up”. The press published lurid descriptions of “Leather Apron”, who was considered to be a Jew, and on the streets, there were unpleasant anti-Semitic reactions. Jews were verbally abused and sometimes physically assaulted.

The police seem to have believed that “Leather Apron” was John Pizer, a shoemaker living in Mulberry Street, off Commercial Road. On Monday morning, 10th September, Sergeant Thicke took Pizer to Leman Street police station and his home was searched. When questioned about his whereabouts on the nights of the murders of Mary Ann Nichols and Annie Chapman, Pizer provided cast-iron alibis and was released.

At Chapman's inquest, which Pizer attended, there was some suspicion as to why Pizer had stayed indoors between the night of the Chapman murder and the time he was arrested by Thicke. Pizer replied that his brother had advised against going out, since he might have been torn to pieces by anti-Jewish mobs.

Whether or not Pizer was in fact “Leather Apron” is uncertain. He strenuously denied knowing that he was known as that nickname and declared that he had a stainless character. On the other hand, the police must have had a reason for connecting him with the “Leather Apron” stories and there is certainly no evidence in any police writings to suggest that they were ever in any doubt about the identification. Pizer was publically exonerated at the inquest, and he subsequently took out libel action against the police.

During the week following the murder of Mary Nichols, the police investigation concentrated on finding “Leather Apron” as well as a bloodstained man who had aroused the suspicions of Mrs Fiddymont, Landlady of a Spitalfields pub, the Prince Albert Tavern, only a few hundred yards from the scene of the crime. This second man was probably a butcher named Jospeh Issenschmidt who was mentally unstable and had been out of Colony Hatch Asylum, North London. Issenschmidt was detained on 12th September and, according to Inspector Abberline, was handed over to the parochial authorities as a lunatic. The police soon lost interest in both Issenschmidt and Fiddymont.

With Chapman's murder, additional policemen were drafted in from other divisions to augment the local H and J Divisions (Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, respectively). The press thought this swamping of the area was ineffectual, and the police were criticised. However, there is evidence to show the police presence was having an effect on the killer due largely to the lengthening intervals between the murders - a week between Nichols and Chapman, three weeks between Chapman and the Double Event (Stride and Eddowes) and over a month between the Double Event and Kelly.

The Metropolitan Police also distributed about 80,000 handbills requesting the public to communicate anything suspicious to the authorities. The police visited common lodgings houses, questioned over 2,000 lodgers, and made extensive house-to-house enquiries. Curiously, these were restricted to a geographical area that excluded both Bucks Row and Berner Street, where Nichols and Stride were murdered. Nevertheless, the area they chose held the greatest concentration of Eastern European immigrants, and was dominated by common lodging houses with a correspondingly large transient population.

Robert Anderson, the newly appointed head of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), who was out of the country until after the double murders of Stride and Eddowes, later wrote in his memoirs, The Lighter Side of My Official Life, “during my absence abroad the police had made house-to-house search for him (the murderer), investigating the case of every man in the district whose circumstances were such that he could come and go and get rid of his blood stains in secret. And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews”.

Whatever the reasons were for this conclusion, it seems that by the end of October 1888, the police were no nearer to identifying the killer than they had been on the day that Mary Ann Nichols was murdered.

In a report to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Charles Warren, dated 23rd October, Anderson admitted “that a crime of this kind should be committed without any clue being supplied by the criminal is unusual, but that five successive murders should be committed without our having the slightest clue of any kind is extraordinary, if not unique, in the annals of crime”.

There was one clue – of sorts. After the murder of Catherine Eddowes, in Mitre Square, a blood-stained piece of a woman’s apron was found on a common stairway to a block of flats in Goulston Street, a few streets North-East of  Mitre Square. It was found to match exactly the apron Eddowes was wearing, and had evidently been used by the killer to wipe his knife and hands.

This piece of material suggested that the murderer was heading back into the East End, into the very heart of the murder district. While this strongly indicates that he was a resident there and member of the local community, he may have been forced into taking this route.

Little is known of the investigation undertaken by the City Police into the murder of Catherine Eddowes, the only Jack the Ripper victim murdered within their jurisdiction. Their files were destroyed by bombing during World War 2. A brief account was given by Major Henry Smith, the commissioner of the city police, in his memoirs, but these are considered unreliable.

In a precautionary measure, the City Police drafted men in plain clothes onto the boundary between the Metropolitan and City jurisdictions to check alleys and dark corners and to keep an open eye for suspicious individuals. After Eddowes' murder in Mitre Square, Aldgate, they seem to have placed a value on the description given by eye-witness Joseph Lawende of the man thought to have been seen with Eddowes at the entrance to Mitre Square.

The destruction of the City Police case papers is a great loss, for not only might they have given a better insight into the approach taken by the city to the Ripper crimes, but they might also have thrown some light on a few mysterious and tantalising items of information.

After six months, the investigation gradually wound down. The expensive special patrols drafted into Whitechapel had been withdrawn by March 1889, and Inspector Abberline was caught up in the Cleveland Street scandal in which certain English aristocrats were accused of frequenting a male brothel near Tottenham Court Road.

Press and public interest in the Ripper waned, to be briefly revived with the murder of Alice Mckenzie in Whitechapel in mid-1889. The Jack the Ripper case papers remained open until 1892, but no more information was added to them. They remained closed to public inspection until 1992, but were made available to researchers in the 1970s.


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The Jack the Ripper Casebook