In Victorian Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper ruled with a reign of terror. During what is now known as the ‘Autumn of Terror’, it is thought the Ripper killed at least five women, but the reality is that he could have murdered many, many more. The Whitechapel Murders have since gone down in history as one of the East End’s darkest periods of history – and it’s all down to one man whose identity has never been revealed.
Ask anyone how many victims Jack the Ripper claimed and you will usually get an answer that ranges from just a few unfortunate individuals to hundreds of potential victims. There is a simple reason for this - nobody knows the answer. By the very nature of their occupation, prostitutes were easy targets, meaning assaults and occasional deaths of these women would not have been considered bizarre. However, the Whitechapel Murders set a horrific standard of brutality that shocked the world, but if we are to set a definitive number of Jack the Ripper victims, how many should we consider?
As far as the police were concerned, the Jack the Ripper Whitechapel murders spanned three years (1888-1891) and included a proposed eleven victims: Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, Mary Jane Kelly, Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, Frances Coles and one unfortunate, unidentified headless torso. All these identified women were known to be local prostitutes living in common lodging houses in a relatively small area.
Were all these murders the work of one man? Was Jack the Ripper responsible for all their deaths? While many people believe that he was, it is also possible that he was not.
In 1894, Melville Macnaghten, former Chief Constable of the Metropolitan Police, wrote a private memorandum in which he claimed that “the Whitechapel murderer had five victims and five victims only”, setting a standard for the perceived number of victims after the document was first publicised in the late 1950s. These five victims - Nichols, Chapman, Stride, Eddowes, and Kelly – have become known as the ‘Canonical Five’ and are sometimes referred to as the ‘five official’ or ‘five known’ victims. The similarity in the way they were killed (throats cut, abdominal mutilations and, in three cases, internal organs removed) suggests that this idea is a sound one, but it does have its detractors.
When looking at contemporary reports in the press, it is noticeable that after the murder of Nichols in August 1888, many felt that the previous deaths of Emma Smith (April 1888) and Martha Tabram (August 1888), could also have been the work of the same hand and thus at the time, Nichols was considered the third victim. Those killed after Mary Jane Kelly were certainly considered seriously at the time, and they also prompted ‘Ripper scares’, all of which serves to blur the boundaries of the Ripper’s final head-count.
Put simply, the Whitechapel murders 1888 spanned eleven victims over three years, but the one individual known as Jack the Ripper is widely thought by many to be responsible for the Canonical Five killings in a ten-week period later labelled as the ‘Autumn of Terror’.
There is also the possibility that not all the accepted victims of Jack the Ripper were killed by his hand, either.
Owing to the lack of mutilations to Elizabeth Stride’s body, she has frequently been discarded as a potential victim. Some have suggested that the atrocious murder of Mary Kelly was committed by somebody else, an over-the-top imitation based on the descriptions of the previous women's injuries circulated in the press at the time. One eminent surgeon believed that Alice McKenzie was also a Ripper murder victim.
Take the opportunity to browse our casebook and discover more about Whitechapel, Jack the Ripper, the police investigation, and Victorian London. Delve deeper into each of these murders, from Emma Smith in April 1888 through to Frances Coles in February 1891, weigh up the evidence carefully for yourself, think outside the box, and make up your own mind on what happened in Whitechapel, London 1888!