What do we know about the canonical five—the women that forensics and history experts agree were certainly all victims of Jack the Ripper? What can their similarities tell us about the first serial killer to make headlines?
[Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of violence and gore.]
The definitive victims of Jack the Ripper, known as the “canonical five,” are the cases agreed on by all accounts; all five were females whose poverty and love of alcohol apparently led them to prostitution. Their ages varied somewhat, but all were young to middle-aged, a range we’d assume typical for prostitutes. All were Caucasian.
Jack the Ripper Victim 1: Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols
The first of the canonical five, Mary Ann Nichols, also known as Polly, was discovered on August 31, 1888. She was lying on her back with her skirts pulled up; her throat was slashed deeply twice, all the way down to her vertebrae, and her low abdomen had been cut several times. Some of those belly wounds were so deep they literally ripped open her body cavity, exposing her intestines. When a physician examined her remains at the scene, at around 4:00 in the morning, he considered body temperature, as we would today. Since her body and legs were still somewhat warm compared to her cold hands, he concluded Nichols was probably dead for about a half hour.
This is a transcript from the video series Forensic History: Crimes, Frauds, and Scandals. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
Jack the Ripper Victim 2: Annie Chapman
The body of the second victim, Annie Chapman, was found around 6:00 in the morning of September 8. She also had two extremely deep cuts to her throat, which a physician later said at the inquest had been made from left to right.
I assume they thought this would perhaps reveal whether the perpetrator was behind the victim or in front of her. But that would also depend on whether he was left or right handed. Chapman’s skirts had been raised, and this time, not only was her belly cut open, but her intestines were pulled outside her body and her uterus had been removed and was missing. This is what forensic investigators call “taking a trophy.”
Chapman’s autopsy also showed bruises that the doctor knew must have come from a previous altercation. Bruising doesn’t happen at or after death since once the heart stops beating, blood pressure no longer drives the circulation that pushes blood out of broken vessels and into tissues. Dead skin lacks what’s known as a “vital reaction.”
Later, witnesses described seeing Annie in a bar fight earlier in the week, substantiating the antemortem bruises. The MO made it far more logical to link this killing to the same vicious perpetrator who had murdered Mary Ann Nichols just a week before rather than suspect that it was the fallout from a barroom brawl.
Learn more about the landmark case of the Jack the Ripper murders from the late 1880s
Jack the Ripper Victim 3: Elizabeth Stride
Almost a month later, on September 30, the body of Elizabeth Stride was found at around 1:00 in the morning. But this case was different. The victim had only one cut to her neck, her skirts weren’t raised, and her belly wasn’t mutilated. So why did police connect her to these other murders?
An examination of Stride’s body in the courtyard where she lay showed the cut in her neck was so deep that there was a spray of blood extending some distance from her body. Today’s blood spatter analysis wasn’t standard protocol at that time, but my read of that jet of blood sounds like a major artery was cut, causing the force of the heart to send the blood quite a distance away. An officer on the scene said the woman’s face was still warm, corroborating her recent death.
Within moments of the discovery of Stride’s body, as people began shouting in the streets that yet another murder had taken place, a crowd of nearly 30 people had gathered around. This prompted an officer to tell them to stand back. He didn’t seem as concerned about them contaminating the crime scene with their own trace evidence, as we would today, but rather, he told them if they got blood on their clothes, they might be suspect. In fact, officers examined the hands and clothes of onlookers for bloodstains, just as might be done today. Investigators took names and addresses and even checked people’s pockets before allowing anyone to leave.
Stride’s clothing was in place from head to toe with one exception: the bow that had tied her scarf was askew, as though the perpetrator had used it to grab her from behind. A doctor at the scene estimated the time of death at around 20 to 30 minutes prior. Based on the depth of the cut to the victim’s neck, he said she would have bled to death in a minute and a half or so. Sophisticated for 1888, isn’t it? Keep in mind, though, that most common people were familiar with slaughtering animals, and a standard method was cutting the major vessels of the neck to bleed them to death.
Learn more about the special forensic category known as lust murder
Victim 4: Catherine Eddowes
What might a serial killer do if he’s built up a frenzy, but then been thwarted? Well, about 45 minutes after the discovery of Stride’s remains, the body of Catherine Eddowes was found not too far away. In a stroke of unbelievably bad fortune, Eddowes had been in jail that night for being drunk and disorderly, and she was released about 1:00 that morning, around the same time Stride was being murdered.
If the Ripper couldn’t complete his full MO on Stride, he quickly did so on Eddowes to satisfy himself. She had her throat slit twice, her skirts lifted, her belly cut open from nearly her navel to her rectum, and portions of her intestines removed and placed upon her shoulder. This time, in addition to most of her uterus being cut out, her left kidney was also removed and taken as a trophy. Her face was cut up, too, including one ear.
Investigators later found a piece of cloth smeared with both blood and feces, not too far from the crime scene. The cloth turned out to be part of Eddowes’s apron that the killer had cut from her clothing and then apparently used to clean his knife and possibly his hands.
Had that happened today, perhaps DNA from somebody other than Eddowes might have been found on that fabric, especially if the perpetrator had used it to wipe off his hands. But when you consider how infrequently people likely washed their clothing in those days, well, the analysis would certainly have been complicated. Besides, without a suspect, whose DNA would be gathered for a comparison sample? Minimally, though, the victims could have been definitively linked if the same DNA profile was found in each case, even if the owner of that DNA was not known.
Last of the Ripper 5: Mary Jane Kelly
Now, despite the rapid succession of four victims in the month between August 31 and September 30, the last of the Ripper five, Mary Jane Kelly, was not killed until November 9, almost six weeks later. Kelly is also the only one of the canonical five murdered indoors. She lived in a multiple-unit building, and two neighbors claimed to have heard a woman cry out “murder” once, at around 4:00, but said the building was always noisy.
A man, sent by the landlord to collect some overdue rent that morning, found Kelly’s body around 10:45. After knocking and then peering through the window, he was stunned to see Kelly’s mutilated body on the bed and pieces of flesh lying on a table near the window; he ran to get his boss. Then the landlord sent his man on to the police station.
This time, the scene investigation seemed much more thought out, perhaps due to criticism of the previous actions. Police sent a telegram to Scotland Yard to bring in the bloodhounds since the crime scene hadn’t been disturbed. The area was cordoned off to the public; no one could either enter or leave, and a doctor was called in.
Because the door was locked—which is curious to me, but I don’t know how the door lock worked—the doctor looked through the window, and he immediately realized there was nothing he could do for the victim. So, they waited for the dogs. But for some reason, the decision to use the dogs was reversed, and at 1:20 in the afternoon, police broke down the door and began to examine the murder scene.
This time, crime scene photos were taken; they’re available and awful. Kelly’s body was on the bed, nude, with her legs splayed open. Her face had been mutilated beyond recognition, with parts of her nose, cheeks, eyebrows, and ears removed. Kelly’s throat was cut to her spine, her abdomen completely eviscerated of its organs, which were found in various places on the bed.
Her heart had been cut out and was never recovered. Pieces of skin and flesh had been removed from her thighs down to the bone, as well as from her abdomen, and her breasts were excised. As I mentioned before, some of her tissue was piled on a table near the window. This shows the escalation of the Ripper’s actions, or maybe he just had more time and privacy since he was inside.
Investigators noticed the fireplace was still warm and found that a lot of women’s clothes that had been burned, perhaps to give the killer light by which to work, since there was only one candle in the room. They searched for evidence of anything unusual and found a man’s pipe, but it ended up belonging to Kelly’s boyfriend. Police padlocked the door to her room to protect the scene, in case they later wanted to re-examine things. And although they lacked the technology we have today, investigators did consider some of the same things we do now. What’s present and what’s absent from the scene? What assumptions might we derive from that evidence?
Later that day, Kelly’s body was autopsied. There were so many cuts to the victim’s neck, that investigators couldn’t establish the direction of the weapon’s path. Because rigor mortis was setting in, the attending physicians estimated the time of Kelly’s death at somewhere between 2:00 and 8:00 that morning.
They believed it might have taken the Ripper perhaps two hours to do that much damage to her body. But unlike earlier reports, their conclusion was that the killer did not have any anatomical knowledge based on the haphazard way the organs had been removed. They estimated the size of the blade used at an inch wide and about six inches long—though today it’s known that estimates of blade size from soft tissue wounds are notoriously difficult and unreliable.
The murder of Mary Kelly apparently ended the killer’s rampage, at least in the London Whitechapel area. No one knows to this day who he was or why the murders ended. Did he die? Was he incarcerated for something else? Did he wind up in a mental institution? Did he move away? Despite thousands of books written on the subject and countless articles espousing different theories and possible suspects—over 125 years of analysis—his identity is not known.