The History of Forensic Science: Identifying Jack the Ripper

From a lecture series presented by Professor Elizabeth Murray, Ph.D.

The murder spree of Jack the Ripper—the first widely reported “serial killer”—was a grisly chapter in history of forensic science. Some of the methods developed in the pursuit of this killer are still used today.Identifying Jack the Ripper

A Media Sensation – Jack the Ripper

The landmark case for crime reporting created the first known major media crime sensation, which started locally, then spread across much of the world. It’s a forensic analysis that began in the late 1880s and is still ongoing today.

This case has spawned hundreds of theories, countless publications, and has had some of forensic science’s greatest minds re-examine it. But, despite all this effort, we still don’t know the identity of the perpetrator. So, he goes by the legendary name of Jack the Ripper.

Learn more: The Infamous Jack the Ripper

Although the exact number of victims is not really known, most authorities agree that five women killed between August 31 and November 9 of 1888 in the East London area known as Whitechapel are confidently the work of one serial killer.

Many sources also attribute a sixth victim from earlier that August to Jack the Ripper. Some theories raise the number of victims to 11 women, and still, other sources go higher, perhaps including a 7-year-old boy, encompassing a larger group of attacks that took place in the same general vicinity between February 25 and December 29 of 1888.

But the earlier assaults during this broader 10-month period seem more haphazard, and the victims were not killed. As a result, most scholars believe those are not connected, but rather, just reflect the impoverished, dangerous, and crime-ridden East End of London at the time. It’s also possible, though, that at least some of those earlier attacks were the clumsier beginnings of a killing spree that Jack the Ripper ultimately mastered

How Were the Jack the Ripper Crimes Connected?

In addition to time, what other evidence has been used to connect some of these crimes and the victims of Jack the Ripper? The reason most agree five female victims are definitively linked, and why some authorities insist others are decidedly not the work of the same killer, is what forensic scientists call modus operandi, or simply the perpetrator’s MO. These five women were prostitutes who lived and worked in the slums of the East End of London.

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So apparently, part of the Ripper’s MO was to prey upon women of the night, which is when these killings occurred. But no semen was discovered in any of these cases, which not only further links them, but also suggests that rape was not part of the MO. The murders are further connected by increasing brutality, showing an escalation of sorts as time went on, a phenomenon seen in the careers of many criminals.

Investigators look at these same facets today when they suspect crimes might be linked—victim choice, the weapon used, level of brutality, escalation. Connecting similarities like these is, really, in a way, just common sense. Much of forensic science analysis, at least within the mind of the investigator, is what our brains do every day in countless situations, compare data and recognize patterns. As an example, let’s look at the evidence used to connect the Whitechapel casualties in 1888.

The sites of the first seven Whitechapel murders committed by Jack The Ripper

Learn more: Real Crime Scenes: The Evidence Speaks

Eyewitnesses in the Jack the Ripper Cases

Eyewitnesses are, without fail, a big lead for investigators, right? Well, not always. In this case, there were numerous people willing to say they saw a couple in the area that evening, or at least saw Elizabeth Stride, victim 3, with a man in the area between around 11:00 p.m. and 12:45 on the same night she was murdered, but few of them could agree on the appearance of the guy they claim to have seen or the clothing he was wearing.

One witness told police the couple was kissing in the recessed doorway of a building and that he heard the man say to Stride, “You would say anything, but your prayers.” Another witness who claimed to have seen Stride about 12:30 a.m. was a young police constable who said the man with her carried a package about 18 inches long, wrapped in newspaper. And eyewitness testimony can be notoriously unreliable. Plus, there’s the well-known phenomenon of people falsely reporting events to get attention or to jump on the media-frenzy bandwagon around incidents like this.

Mortuary photo of Elizabeth Stride
Mortuary photo of Elizabeth Stride

But one eyewitness said he saw Stride at 12:45 a.m. in the same location where her body was found in an altercation with a man. The witness said the man had dark hair, a thin moustache, was about 5′ 5″ tall, broad-shouldered, and around 30 years old.

This was consistent with the description of the man made by the police constable. The onlooker thought he was watching a domestic argument, and he didn’t want to get involved. Especially after the attacker took notice of the witness, so the bystander decided to just keep moving.

We’ve all heard of cases in the news in which people don’t want to get involved, or maybe they only realize the gravity of what they saw after they hear later that they witnessed a crime. The discovery of Elizabeth’s body, just 15 minutes after this man saw what he thought was a domestic dispute, suggests that the witness, who was a Hungarian Jew and had to be interviewed through an interpreter, may not have only seen Jack the Ripper, but stumbled upon him in the process of killing one of his victims.

Authorities took the account of this Hungarian quite seriously for two main reasons. First, the witness came forward despite significant anti-Semitic tensions in the area. Second, he saw what he described as an altercation, including the woman’s very low-pitched cry, before the attacker noticed the bystander, causing the Hungarian to rush off.

Investigators already believed that the Ripper’s MO was to strangle or slit his victim’s throats, cutting them twice, so deeply that their airway was cut, disabling them from screaming during the rest of the attack. Police theorized that the Hungarian may have stumbled upon the attacker as he was just beginning to execute his typical MO on Stride. But once the Ripper realized someone was watching, he ran off after only a single cut to the victim’s neck, abandoning the rest of his standard mutilation.

Learn more: How Reliable is Eyewitness Testimony?

Early Forensic Mistakes on Jack the Ripper Victims

Graffito in Goulston Street, attached to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren's report to the Home Office on the Whitechapel murders.
Copy of graffito in Goulston Street, attached to Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren’s report to the Home Office on the Whitechapel murders.

Another unusual aspect showed up with the Eddowes case, victim 4: a message, neatly written in chalk on the wall in the busy marketplace, right next to where a piece of her apron had been discarded. It said, “The Juwes [sic] are the men that will not be blamed for nothing.” The meaning of this message is still open to debate and interpretation, but it echoed the anti-Semitism that was dividing the community about the murders.

Terror in society often stirs up wild emotions, including the desire to blame and demonize some group or some person, and as we’ve seen throughout history, we most often point the finger at those who are not like us.

How would evidence like a chalk-written message on a building entryway be captured? It should have been saved then, as it would be today, using forensic photography.

Photography was well established by then, and there are many images related to the Ripper murders available, including morgue photos of victims.

But unbelievably, because of the darkness of the early-morning hour, the wait time for the arrival of a photographer, and the fact that the shop owners were beginning to open their market stalls, the police decided instead to just copy down the writing and then obliterated the message at 5:30 in the morning. They feared if crowds saw the message, there would be a riot against the Jewish community, and more lives might be lost.

While I can certainly understand their anxiety, destroying potential handwritten evidence like that leaves me shaking my head. Many Ripper scholars believe, though, that the graffiti may have already been there, especially since some observers said it was blurry, and it may have been a complete coincidence that the piece of Eddowes’ apron was dropped in the same location. Either way, there was heavy criticism of the police decision to eradicate the message.

Another interesting forensic aspect related to this writing was the early use of forensic linguistics; that’s the study of language. Based on the spelling and grammatical errors, the police commissioner felt strongly the graffiti did not come from a native English speaker.

He wrote in his report, “The idiom does not appear to be English, French, or German, but it might possibly be that of an Irishman speaking a foreign language. It seems to be the idiom of Spain or Italy.” Given the odd phrasing, this makes complete sense, but it’s interesting to note the use of language to help profile the suspect. The nonsensical nature of the wording led authorities to two possible conclusions: if the killer wrote it: Jack the Ripper was Jewish and bragging of it, or the killer was trying to thwart the investigation by blaming a Jew.

A Grisly Delivery – Jack the Ripper Trophies

Now, what about other police profiling of the likely killer? Due to the anatomical knowledge, some ascribed to the mutilations and the trophy removal, and the allegations that the Ripper may be a Jew, some began to suspect the killer was a Jewish slaughterhouse worker. So, perhaps to help satisfy the public, the police rounded up the knives of the local Jewish slaughter-men to see if any matched the suspected weapon.

A doctor concluded that none of them seemed to be the murder weapon, so we see evidence of early attempts to match a sharp tool with a wound, something common in forensics today, including in my own work, although typically far more reliable when analyzing trauma to the bone, rather than soft tissue.

Picture of the "From Hell" letter
“From Hell” Letter

Nearly two weeks after the night Stride and Eddowes were killed, the chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee got a package containing half a kidney. It was preserved in wine and assumed to be human. Along with this was a note full of spelling errors that explained the other half had been eaten by the killer. But about the kidney, how could forensic science establish this organ as belonging to a human?

Based on my many years of teaching anatomy, using both human and non-human organs for dissection and microscopy, I can tell you that a pig kidney, or that of any similar-sized animal, is very like that of a human. Today’s DNA testing, as well as much faster antibody testing, could allow investigators to quickly determine the animal source, although I have no idea how pickling an organ in wine might affect those tests.

But the best they could do in 1888 was a microscopic examination, something commonly done in autopsies today to look for pathology, but not to try to figure out the species. Two doctors independently verified the kidney was human, but based on the portion they had, the doctors were not specifically able to match it to Eddowes’ body at her truncated renal artery. So, they couldn’t say for certain it was her missing kidney, but they also couldn’t prove it wasn’t.

Learn more: Litigation and Legal Practice: Problematic Evidence

Jack the Ripper – The Making of a Murder Sensation

Newspaper broadsheet referring to the killer as "Leather Apron", September 1888
Newspaper broadsheet referring to the killer as “Leather Apron”, September 1888

Why was the Jack the Ripper case such a worldwide media sensation, even back in the 1880s—I mean, in addition to how horrific it was? Any idea why these murders are among the first to prompt what investigators call copycat killings? Why this case ultimately included a series of letters claiming to be from the murderer?

This brings us to another major theme I hope you recognize throughout this course, and that’s the continuous interplay between science and society. For example, how forensic advances, in both crimes and the technology used to solve them, are directly correlated with other changes in society.

The simple reason this series of brutal murders became the best-known criminal matter of its time was the concurrent boom in newspaper circulation in the second half of the 19th century. Advances in printing and tax reform in England allowed unprecedented low-cost newspaper production and distribution.

And since London was arguably the most prominent of capital cities in the world at that time, it had dozens of newspapers—The Lancet, Times, Daily Telegraph, Daily News, Evening News, Standard, Star, Echo, Lloyd’s Weekly, East London Observer, East London Advertiser, Jewish Chronicle, Jewish Standard, a whole host of others. Even one publication called the Illustrated Police News, which was an early type of true-crime magazine.

In addition to the newspaper industry, a big reason word of the Ripper’s killings went worldwide so quickly was that this was also the time of advances in the telegraph technology, including intercontinental communications. The 19thcentury also witnessed many advances in photography. So, the Ripper murders coincided with the era when modern journalism was born.

So, after the discovery of Polly Nichols’ mutilated body, news of London’s East End crime wave spread quickly. Newspapers across the globe picked up that story and the related ones that came with each killing. In fact, the infamous name of this still-unknown killer was delivered to the newspapers. It came in the form of a letter written in red ink to London’s Central News Agency organization on September 27. That was between the second and third murders among the canonical five.

The letter’s author took credit for the prostitute killings, saying he would cut off the ears of the next victim, and was signed, Jack the Ripper. Later, on October 1, a postcard in the same red ink and handwriting was delivered to the news agency about the “double event,” alluding to the deaths of Elizabeth Stride and Kate Eddowes in the same night, even saying that “number one squealed a bit, couldn’t finish straight off. Had not the time to get ears for police.” And if you remember, although Eddowes’ ears were not removed, one was definitely cut.

But then, as now, many who have delved into the Ripper murders believe the letter and the postcard were part of a hoax. Most attribute them to someone in the media, a journalist who had inside knowledge of the events and wanted to sell newspapers. And sell papers they did. In fact, Mary Jane Kelly’s boyfriend told police she regularly asked him to read her the news of the killer from the local papers. Little could either one know that she would soon be front-page news as the Ripper’s final victim.

Keep Reading:
Forensic History: Uncovering The Victims of Jack the Ripper
Forensic Science: Real Practice vs. Television Drama
Murder in a Time of War — Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men

From a Lecture Series: Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals
Taught by Professor Elizabeth A. Murray, Ph.D.