TWENTY – THE LETTERS
Not all the letters now exist, and of the letters that have been preserved not all have envelopes that reveal intended addresses. One letter was sent to the maid of a gentleman whose name was missing from the envelope. The sender signed the letter Jack the Ripper and added that he craved blood. Not the type of thing to help a young woman sleep at night. The Beatles and Elvis changed hairstyles. Like Batman, whose creation he may have inspired, Jack the Ripper also had fans and imitators. Some of the letters may have been from him but there are 210 in which the sender claimed to be either Jack the Ripper or the slayer of the victims. On the 10th of October 1888 seven letters arrived from locations that included London, Leicester and Edinburgh. As some letters have been mislaid, the likelihood is that in total around 300 letters were posted from people claiming to be the Ripper. The letters were sent to the police, the press, those in authority and sometimes neighbours against whom there was a grievance. 2000 more letters arrived from people who thought they had something to contribute to the investigation. Again not all these letters were posted to the police. Some of the letters came from outside the country and not all were in the English language. Of these mainly well-intentioned letters 700 were investigated by the police. The rest were ignored.
Analysts have suggested that some of the frequent grammatical imperfections in the letters from supposed murderers are deliberate. Those who believe they have identified the select few that came from the actual Ripper have noted inconsistencies between simple words being misspelt and more complicated examples being perfect. This may be true but it is also odd, considering the ego required for murder, that there are no examples of a writer using the medium to demonstrate superior intelligence through literary ability. The only letters that are grammatically sound appear after the death of Mary Jane Kelly. Only one letter insists upon accomplishment and this opus of 81 lines of rhyming verse was sent on the 8th of November 1889 and to ‘the Superintendent of Great Scotland Yard London’. The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner it is not but for once the self-congratulation is not restricted to the ability to be violent.
Handwriting experts, psychologists and writers desperate to discover the identity of the Ripper have pored over the letters that remain. This is certain. One, there were too many letters from too many different destinations for it all to be the work of one person. Two, some of the letter writers would have written more than once. Three, Jack the Ripper may have been the author of one or more of those letters. Four, the rest is imaginative theory.
Five letters have received more attention than the rest. This is because of when they appeared, who saw them, when they were seen and the stylistic flourishes that were either copied or repeated. These five letters can be separated into two groups. In the first group are three that announced the arrival of Jack the Ripper. These three refer to each other and have persuaded many that they were written by the killer. The other two, which came later, had the added bonus of referring to the kidney that was sent to George Lusk the chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee.
The first letter of the initial three was received on the 27th of September 1888 by the news agency Central News. In this letter the writer attempts a jocular tone. He uses the phrase ‘ha ha’ three times, a phrase that occasionally appeared in subsequent letters. The letter was signed Jack the Ripper and asked that the reader, ‘Don’t mind me giving the trade name.’ There was an apology for not writing the letter in blood and for red ink being used as a substitute. Because the blood was thick like glue, the writer had kept the blood in a ginger beer bottle. For someone who disembowelled his victims the use of empty ginger beer bottles is almost endearing. The promise that ‘I shall clip the lady’s ears off and send to the police officers,’ indicated to some researchers that the letter was written by the Ripper. Catherine Eddowes and Liz Stride were both murdered in the early hours of September 30 1888. The lobe of the right ear of Catherine Eddowes was found in her clothing when the body was examined. The lobe, though, was not sent to the police. There was also a continuous cut across the neck that finished at the ear. The lobe was a casualty not an objective.
On the 1st of October 1888 a postcard was received by Central News. The writer mentioned the previous ‘tip’ and claimed that he had no time to get ears for the police but he did promise a ‘double event’ the next day. The murders of Liz Stride and Catherine Eddowes had occurred not much more than 24 hours earlier. If the writer had been using the postal service that exists today, the reference to the double event would have been evidence of a prediction. But in 1888 there were twelve deliveries a day. There was time to read about the murders before sending the postcard. Some experts believe that the letter and postcard were written by the same person although to this untrained eye they do not appear to be similar. But 19th Century pens had a lethal edge to them and they could distort handwriting.
The third communication to Central News arrived on the 5th of October 1888. Attempts have been made to link all three letters but the tone in the third was very different. It contained biblical references and described the killings as work on behalf of God. The writer promised three murders the following day. This did not happen. Mary Jane Kelly was murdered a month later on the 9th of November. If the three murders did not occur a day later because the Ripper had a migraine, the headache lasted for some time. There was a heartfelt plea in the letter that suggests the expectation of sympathy. The writer swore that he did not kill ‘the female whose body was found at Whitehall’. He adds that ‘if she was an honest woman I will hunt down and destroy her murderer’. This offer of help was not accepted by the police.
More than one policeman was convinced that the three letters were the work of a journalist who wanted a good story that sold newspapers. There are even options for the possible authors including a visiting American. The notion is that only a journalist would send a letter to a news agency but this can be challenged. Sending the letters to the agency ensured they became public knowledge. It also suited the police to say that the letters were not from the Ripper because they had no idea what to do about them. Some policemen can be at their most confident when they are bereft of ideas. There was also the small matter of the writing on the wall in Goulston Street, which, because of the action by Sir Charles Warren, could not be compared to the handwriting in the letters.
Before George Lusk received the infamous human kidney he had already had a letter and a postcard from someone who claimed to be Jack the Ripper. Neither correspondence is memorable. In the letter another double event was promised. On the postcard was the redundant message that the writer did not have time to play ‘copper games’. As chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee and a builder, Lusk would have been a busy man. He can be excused for not finding the letter and card interesting. Over a hundred years later, though, his attitude towards the parcel that followed feels flippant. The letter was addressed as being ‘From hell’. Lusk may have been able to keep hell at a distance but history beckoned. Inside the parcel were a letter and half of a human kidney. According to the letter, the writer had eaten the other half and ‘it was very nise’. Lusk kept the letter and kidney in his desk but mentioned it at the next meeting of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. Someone with sense suggested that perhaps members of the Committee should look at what was inside the desk of George Lusk. This happened the next day. The kidney was taken to a local doctor, and he referred it to Dr Openshaw at London Hospital. Dr Openshaw decided it was a human kidney, and members of the Committee assumed it must have belonged to Catherine Eddowes. Dr Openshaw had to qualify his previous statements. He could not say if the kidney had belonged to a woman or whether it had been affected by heavy use of alcohol.
A report by Chief Inspector Swanson mangled the English language and without ever being convincing concluded that the kidney was taken from a body during a post mortem. The medics contradicted each other. Dr Gordon Brown, the Divisional Surgeon, managed to even disagree with himself. The vague Dr Openshaw may not have had the last word but he was honoured with a letter signed by Jack the Ripper that approved of the opinion of the Doctor, ‘You was rite it was the lift kidney … ’ This letter promised more ‘innerds’. None arrived. With twelve postal deliveries a day there was no excuse for failing to follow through but no one complained. The letter to Dr Openshaw had enough grammatical errors for them to feel more forced than normal. An additional reference to the devil and his microscope teased Dr Openshaw. The writer asked if he had seen the devil with his microscope and scalpel looking at a kidney. Patricia Cornwell compared this reference to a Cornish rhyme. The teasing continues.
Howard Jackson has had seven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and collections of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.