The Whitechapel Murders

Ask any collection of people how many victims Jack the Ripper actually claimed and you will usually get a range of answers ranging from a few to hundreds. There is a simple reason for this - nobody actually knows the answer. By the very nature of their occupation, prostitutes were easy targets and assaults and occasional deaths of these women from violence 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 number of Jack the Ripper victims, how many should we consider?

As far as the police were concerned, the murders spanned three years (1888-91) and took in 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 unidentified headless torso. All the identified women were known to be local prostitutes living in common lodging houses in a relatively small area. But were these the work of one man? Was ‘Jack the Ripper’ responsible for all of them? It is 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 have sometimes been 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 certainly prompted ‘Ripper scares’, all of which goes to blur the boundaries of what we believe the Ripper’s head-count was. Put simply, the ‘Whitechapel murders’ spanned eleven victims over three years, but the one individual who is known as ‘Jack the Ripper’ is widely thought by many to be responsible for the canonical five 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, 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 a Ripper murder.

As we look into each of these crimes over this series of blogs, from Emma Smith in April 1888  to Frances Coles in February 1891, weigh up the evidence carefully for yourself, think outside the box, and make up your own mind!

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