Dear Boss: Jack the Ripper’s Murderous Origins and Legacy

While their identity remains unknown, the mystery of Jack the Ripper has continued to fascinate modern scholars and true crime lovers alike.

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Black backdrop covered in bloody pamphlets featuring each of the Ripper victims

Known as Leather Apron and the Whitechapel Murderer, Jack the Ripper was an unidentified serial killer in London, England, in 1888. They gained notoriety for the brutal ways their victims were killed and mutilated. Their identity may be unknown, but it’s the mystery of who they were and how they could kill so violently that continues to fascinate audiences. Let’s explore the known origins of “Saucy Jacky” as well as novels that were inspired by them.

Content Warning: Please read with caution as there are gruesome depictions of the murders of Jack the Ripper discussed in this article.

Murders in Whitechapel

From April 3, 1888, to February 12, 1891, 11 murders were committed against women in the East End. Collectively known as the “Whitechapel murders,” the Ripper is believed to have only been active in the latter months of 1888, from August 31 to November 9, murdering the “canonical five.” This is due to the difference in wound patterns on the earliest victims in contrast to the later ones.

The five victims that were linked to the Ripper were: Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. All five women were prostitutes in the East End slums, and all but Kelly were in the process of soliciting customers. In 2019, this was challenged in Hallie Rubenhold’s book The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, where it’s postulated that Nichols, Chapman, and Eddowes were not prostitutes and Stride only occasionally solicited.

 newspaper sketch from from 19th century era of jack the ripper, with a police officer discovering the body of Mary Ann Nichols.
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The infamous aspect of the murders is the gruesome mutilations that were performed on their bodies. And as the murder spree continued, the level of mutilation increased. The first victim, Nichols, was not missing any organs but suffered several stab wounds. But the final victim, Kelly, had her face hacked beyond recognition, organs removed and placed about her, and her heart stolen.

Additional murders were tied to the Ripper, but whether they were committed by them or by someone who copied their style is debated. This included Emma Elizabeth Smith, Martha Tabram, Rose Mylett, Alice McKenzie, Frances Coles, “Fairy Fay,” who is believed to have been Emma Elizabeth Smith, Annie Millwood, argued to be the Ripper’s first victim, Ada Wilson, Annie Farmer, John Gill, the four Thames Torso Murders (1887 to 1889), and Carrie Brown, thought to be a Ripper murder in America, in 1891.

What’s in a Name?

Over the course of the murders, three letters allegedly written by the Ripper were sent to the Central News Agency and the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. While audiences today know his infamous pseudonym, it didn’t come to be until shortly before their third and fourth murders. The name originated in the famous “Dear Boss” letter, which was addressed to the Central News Agency in London on September 25, 1888. The letter has been believed to be a hoax, written by a journalist to build hype for the murders. However, as it was the first documented use of “Jack the Ripper”, it continues to hold interest.

"Dear Boss" letter. Written in red ink.
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The second letter, called the “Saucy Jacky” postcard, was sent to the Agency on October 1, a few days after the Stride and Eddowe murders. Forensic analysis has determined that both letters appear to have been written by the same person. It was postulated in 1913 that the writer was Tom Bullen. But in 1931, Fred Burst from the Star claimed he and a colleague wrote the first two letters to “keep the business alive.”

Frontside of the "Saucy Jacky" postcard. Addressed to the Central News Office. Bloodstains dot the front.
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The final letter, known as the “From Hell” letter, was sent directly to George Lusk, chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. Accompanied with a piece of kidney, the letter was substantially different from the previous two. It doesn’t use “Jack the Ripper” as a signoff and is punctuated with misspellings. Burst did not claim authorship for this one.

"From Hell" letter that was sent to George Lusk.
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Possible Suspects

Contemporaneous investigations brought butchers, slaughterers, surgeons, and physicians under suspicion due to the clear knowledge of medical and anatomical studies that the murders presented.

Profiling at the time speculated that the Ripper was employed due to the murders occurring on the weekends and lived locally. Some believed him to be educated upper-class, possibly a doctor or an aristocrat. However, due to prejudices at the time and the fear of modern science, it’s likely these are biased descriptions. Modern investigations asserted that they may have been foreign-born due to the grammar in the three letters.

Lewis Carroll sits in a chair.
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Commonly cited suspects are Montague Druitt, a barrister and teacher who had an interest in surgery. He was considered insane by many and disappeared after the final murders and was later found dead. Michael Ostrog, a Russian criminal with homicidal tendencies, and Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew with a known hatred towards prostitutes and who was placed in an asylum after the last murder.

Other noted suspects are:

  • Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland
  • Albert Victor, son of Edward VII
  • Walter Sickert, Painter and Printmaker
  • Sir William Gull, English Physician and Lecturer

Legacy

In modern times, locations that are tied to the murders are popular tourist attractions. The Ripper was even used as a symbol of the upper class in the 60’s. However, the scare factor for the Ripper has greatly been reduced, with variations of the name being used as puns, a distasteful move to many. More recently, in 2021, a second “Jack the Chipper” fish and chip shop opened in Greenwich and was threatened with boycotts. Attempts to memorialize the murders didn’t fare any better, and the 2015 opening of the Jack the Ripper Museum in London was criticized by many.

Black and white photo of the Ripper's phantom holding a knife.
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While the murders were decried for their violence, their targeting in a poorer area of London galvanized public opinions about the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. In decades proceeding the murders, the slums were cleared and demolished, and the remaining buildings serve as a popular tourist attraction due to their connection with the murders. The image of the Ripper was related to several bodies of literature, such as Bram Stroker’s Dracula (1897). In 1907, a German publisher released Wie Jack, der Aufschilitzer, gefasst wurde (translation: How Jack the Ripper Was Taken), showing literary detective Sherlock Holmes apprehending the criminal. In 2016, Kerri Maniscalco used the crimes as a backdrop for the #1 New York Times bestseller Stalking Jack the Ripper.

Literary Legacy – Books Inspired by Jack the Ripper

While perhaps the more famous of late Victorian-era literature, Dracula was not the first novel to play on fears that the murders aroused. In fact, the first story, The Curse Upon Mitre Square by John Francis Brewer, appeared in October 1888, just weeks after Stride and Eddowes were found. The continued speculation into who the Ripper was and how they operated continued to fascinate audiences for years to come. Examples include:

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson (2011)

"The Name of the Star" written in wispy black and green text is placed against a half-white and half-green background with a rainy park as the background.
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Bringing the horrifying murders of the past into the present is The Name of the Star. Uprooted from her home state of Louisiana, Rory Deveaux has landed in London to finish her senior year at a boarding school in London. After her arrival, a series of murders that mimic the infamous Jack the Ripper killings from more than a century ago begin to appear around the city. The police have no leads or witnesses — except one. Rory spotted the man who police consider a prime suspect; there’s just one problem.

She’s the only one who can see him.

The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes (1911)

A figure in a black hat and a red bandana is positioned against a black background.
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As Mr. and Mrs. Blunting hear reports of gruesome murders occurring over London, they can’t help but wonder at the suspicious circumstances that brought their newest lodger, Mr. Sleuth, to their door. Turned into a Hitchcock movie, The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), the story plays off fears that the Ripper may be hiding in plain sight. Features a Jack the Ripper-like killer called “The Avenger,” the novel has a larger focus on the Blunting’s psychological terror rather than the killer’s actions.

The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly (2007)

A Victorian era figure wears a purple hat, light green dress, and a large red rose.
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An unforgettable novel set in late 1880s England places Fiona Finnegan, a worker in a tea factory, at the heart of the Jack the Ripper murders. With nothing more than a dream and her lifelong love, Fiona hopes to leave the slums of East London and open her own tea shop. But years of saving and sacrificing come crashing down when a mysterious and brutal man takes nearly everything and everyone she holds dear. Fleeing London for New York, her indomitable spirit propels her modest tea shop to the top of the Manhattan tea trade. But if she wants to quiet the voices that have haunted her, she has to return to London and confront her past to cement her future.

Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye (2015)

A darkened Victorian era street surrounded by carriages, lights, and buildings.
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Perhaps taking a cue from its German counterpart, Lyndsay Faye’s novel reimagines the story of the famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes. Told once again through Watson’s POV, the story recounts Holme’s harrowing attempt to capture “The Knife.” However, after he is injured in Whitechapel and the press begins to question his role in the crimes, Holmes is forced to use all his resources before it’s too late. With impeccable historical accuracy and rooted in the fledging days of tabloid journalism and clinical psychology, the novel follows one of literature’s most memorable characters as he tries to save Scotland Yard, the women of London, and the city itself.

I, Ripper by Stephen Hunter (2015)

A blood red brick wall with the words "I, Ripper" written on it.
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Occurring over a century ago, the Whitechapel murders continue to dominate public imagination. Who was the Ripper? Why did he do it? Those questions and more are answered in Stephen Hunt’s electrifying thriller, which places readers into the mindset of one of the most infamous individuals of all time. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues as the Ripper’s story entwines with that of an Irish journalist who has been tracking the case since the beginning. The underbelly of Whitechapel is brought to life in this atmospheric psychological thriller dripping with intrigue and diabolical twists.

Due to forensic science being relatively new to the criminal scene, much of the evidence found at the various crime scenes had been tainted. Precious fingerprints had been smudged, and police would take pictures after the bodies had been moved and of the wrong things. Police supposedly took pictures of Nichols’ eyes in hopes that the retinas retained a picture of the criminal. Even with all these hindrances, amateur sleuths can’t help but put their own theories forward about who the Ripper was and what led them to commit so many heinous crimes.

Maybe the BBC’s selection of them as one of the worst Britons in history holds some merit.


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