I’m not a butcher, I’m not a Yid,
Nor yet a foreign skipper,
But I’m your own light-hearted friend,
Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.
If there was a turning point in the public’s perception of the Whitechapel Murderer it came in the aftermath of the 30th September 1888.
It was in the early hours of that morning that the murderer, after an absence of three weeks, killed twice in a little under an hour. At 1am the body of Elizabeth Stride was discovered in Dutfield’s Yard, off Berner Street.
Her murderer had then headed in to the City of London where he murdered Catherine Eddowes in Mitre Square, just inside the City’s eastern border. The City of London has its own police force, the City Police, and the murder of Catherine Eddowes now meant that a second force became involved in the hunt for the killer.
“Blind-Man’s Buff” (Punch Magazine cartoon, John Tenniel, 22nd September 1888)
Yet the murderer’s actions in the early hours of the 30th September did, in the eyes of many, succeed in exposing the shortcomings of both forces, whilst also illustrating the reckless cunning – or the incredible luck – possessed by the perpetrator of the crimes. Having murdered Catherine Eddowes on City Police territory, he had slipped back into the East End and had disappeared into the very streets where the Metropolitan Police were trying to track him down after the earlier murder of Elizabeth Stride. As dawn broke on the 30th September 1888 the “Red Fiend,” as some newspapers were dubbing the killer, had succeeded in humiliating two police forces and had left the senior offices of both looking totally bemused and seemingly ineffectual. And in the days that followed, some of those officers would make an error of judgement that would result in the police investigation coming close to meltdown.
In the aftermath of the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes public attitudes towards both the police and the crimes began to change dramatically. The fact that two women had been brutally slain within an hour of each other, apparently by the same man, and only a short distance apart, ensured that fascination with, and fear of, the murderer was raised to a whole new level. As word of a ‘double event’ crackled around the metropolis excited and agitated crowds flocked to the murder sites to speculate on the killer’s motives and identity. Berner Street was described as being like a sea of heads from end to end, whilst the thoroughfares around Mitre Square were blocked by ghoulish spectators. The murders were rapidly assuming a distinct air of melodrama, and on the 1st of October the actions of the Metropolitan Police ensured that the gruesome street pantomime was given a suitable villain to ensure that it would run and run.
On the 29th September 1888 the Central News Agency, whose offices were situated on New Bridge Street in the City of London, forwarded a letter to the police that they had received on the 27thSeptember. The missive, dated 25th September, was addressed to ‘The Boss, Central News Office, London, City.’ It read:-
I keep on hearing the police have caught me but they wont fix me just yet. I have laughed when they look so clever and talk about being on the right track. That joke about Leather Apron gave me real fits. I am down on whores and I shant quit ripping them till I do get buckled. Grand work the last job was. I gave the lady no time to squeal. How can they catch me now. I love my work and want to start again. You will soon hear of me with my funny little games. I saved some of the proper red stuff in a ginger beer bottle over the last job to write with but it went thick like glue and I cant use it. Red ink is fit enough I hope ha ha. The next job I do I shall clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers just for jolly wouldn’t you. Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight. My knife’s so nice and sharp I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good Luck.
Jack the Ripper
Dont mind me giving the trade name. Wasnt good enough to post this before I got all the red ink off my hands curse it No luck yet. They say I’m a doctor now. ha ha
At first the police were convinced that the letter was a hoax. But within twenty four hours of its being forwarded to them the ‘double event’ occurred, and left them with little choice but to begin taking an interest in what ‘Jack the Ripper’ had to say.
The comment that “…I want to get to work right away if I get a chance…” appeared to give credence to the author’s claim to be the murderer; whilst his threat to “clip the ladys ears off and send to the police officers,” when weighed against the fact that her killer had indeed mutilated Catharine Eddowes’s earlobes, was now, so the police thought, far too prophetic to dismiss as an empty boast.
Furthermore, their investigation was rapidly losing both momentum and direction, and they were in desperate need of a breakthrough. Perhaps the Dear Boss missive could provide it? So, on the 1st October, the letter and its contents were made public, and from that moment on five sordid East End murders were guaranteed a gruesome immortality, whilst the homicidal miscreant responsible for them would be elevated into the realm of legend.
The Saucy Jacky Postcard
In the early post on Monday 1st of October, a postcard written in a similar handwriting as the ‘Dear Boss’ letter, was delivered to the Central News Agency.
Again written in red ink, and this time stained with what appeared to be blood, the postcard was undated by the author, but was stamped with a London e postmark, which bore the date October 1st. If the writer was not the same person behind the original communiqué, he was most certainly familiar with its contents:-
I was not codding dear old Boss when I gave you the tip, you’ll hear about Saucy Jacky’s work tomorrow double event this time number one squealed a bit couldn’t finish straight off. had not the time to get ears for police. thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again.
Jack the Ripper
The inference of the postcard, of course, was that it had been written within hours of the murders, and that the author was informing the police of the two murders he had just committed.
Furthermore it boasted that he had indeed attempted to make good on his promise to ‘clip the ears’ off a victim. Whether or not the police believed it to come from the murderer was largely immaterial, the correspondence had to be investigated and, if possible, their author traced. So both the card and the ‘Dear Boss’ letter were reproduced on posters, which were placed outside police stations with a request for anyone recognizing the handwriting to contact the police.
By the 4th October facsimiles of the letter and postcard had been released to the press and were beginning to appear in newspapers all over the world.
Encouraged by this widespread publicity, hoaxers across the country began reaching for their pens, and the beleaguered police investigation was soon inundated by an avalanche of Jack the Ripper correspondence. All of it had to be read, assessed and, if possible, their writers investigated. As the journalist George Sims observed in his “Dagonet” column for the “Referee” on Sunday October 7th:-
“Jack The Ripper is the hero of the hour. A gruesome wag, a grim practical joker, has succeeded in getting an enormous amount of fun out of a postcard which he sent to the Central News. The fun is all his own, and nobody shares in it, but he must be gloating demonically at the present moment at the state of perturbation in which he has flung the public mind. Grave journals have reproduced the sorry jest, and have attempted to seriously argue that the awful Whitechapel fiend is the idle and mischievous idiot who sends blood-stained postcards to the news agency. Of course the whole business is a farce.”
The police appear to have realized early on, if they were ever in any doubt of the fact, that the letter and postcard were not the work of the Whitechapel Murderer. Both, however, had to be investigated, if only to trace the author and eliminate him as a suspect. On 10th October Sir Charles Warren informed the Home Office that “At present I think the whole thing a hoax but of course we are bound to try & ascertain the writer in any case.” Robert Anderson whilst serializing his memoirs prior to their publication in 1910 was even more adamant that the letter was a hoax, and even went so far as to suggest that the police were aware of the prankster’s identity:-
“I will only add here that the “Jack the Ripper” letter which is preserved in the Police Museum at New Scotland Yard is the creation of an enterprising London Journalist.
Indeed the fact that the sender had demonstrated the wherewithal to send his communication to a news agency, as opposed to a local or national newspaper, suggests that he did indeed have an in depth knowledge of how the press worked. As George Sims observed:-
“The fact that the self-postcard-proclaimed assassin sent his imitation blood-besmeared communication to the Central News people opens up a wide field for theory. How many among you, my dear readers, would have hit upon the idea of “the Central News” as a receptacle for your confidence? You might have sent your joke to the Telegraph, the Times, any morning or any evening paper, but I will lay long odds that it would never have occurred to communicate with a Press agency. Curious, is it not, that this maniac makes his communication to an agency which serves the entire Press? It is an idea which might occur to a Pressman perhaps; and even then it would probably only occur to someone connected with the editorial department of a newspaper, someone who knew what the Central News was, and the place it filled in the business of news supply. This proceeding on Jack’s part betrays an inner knowledge of the newspaper world which is certainly surprising. Everything therefore points to the fact that the jokist is professionally connected with the Press. And if he is telling the truth and not fooling us, then we are brought face to face with the fact that the Whitechapel murders have been committed by a practical journalist – perhaps by a real live editor! Which is absurd, and at that I think I will leave it.”
In 1913 retired Detective Chief Inspector John George Littlechild, who at the time of the murders was head of Special Branch and therefore privy to much of the contemporary opinion amongst senior officers on the case, replied to a query sent to him by George Sims:-
“With regard to the term ‘Jack the Ripper’ it was generally believed at the Yard that Tom Bullen of the Central News was the originator, but it is probable Moore, who was his chief, was the inventor. It was a smart piece of journalistic work. No journalist of my time got such privileges from Scotland Yard as Bullen. Mr James Munro when Assistant Commissioner, and afterwards Commissioner, relied on his integrity. Poor Bullen occasionally took too much to drink, and I fail to see how he could help it knocking about so many hours and seeking favours from so many people to procure copy. One night when Bullen had taken a ‘few too many’ he got early information of the death of Prince Bismarck and instead of going to the office to report it sent a laconic telegram ‘Bloody Bismarck is dead’. On this I believe Mr Charles Moore fired him out.”
Littlechild’s memory was slightly amiss when he wrote to Sims, since Tom Bullen was in fact Thomas J. Bulling. It was he who forwarded a transcript of a third letter to the police, which was dated 5th of October, and which purported to again come from ‘Jack the Ripper.’ He enclosed the envelope that contained the letter and observed that it was “in the same handwriting as the previous communications.”
But, interestingly, he only sent a handwritten copy of the original. Perhaps he was finding it difficult to disguise his hand writing? The letter included several biblical quotes and more threats such as:-
I must get to work tomorrow treble event this time yes yes three must be ripped . will send you a bit of face by post I promise this dear old Boss.
The letter ended with the taunt:-
The police now reckon my work a practical joke well well Jacky’s a very practical joker ha ha Keep this back till three are wiped out and you can show the cold meat.
Obviously, whether it was Bulling or Moore, or for that matter whether it was either, who was responsible for inventing the name Jack the Ripper will now never be known for sure.
What is interesting about this third letter, however, is that by 5th October the police were evidently dubious about the provenance of the correspondence, and were beginning to realize that releasing them had hindered rather than helped their investigation. Indeed it seems likely that they asked the Central News Agency not to release details of it, and as a result it received hardly any mention by the newspapers.
Given the huge number of prank letters that almost overwhelmed the police investigation in the wake of the original Jack the Ripper missive, it is surprising to note that only a small number of those responsible were apprehended, and only two of those authors were actually imprisoned by the authorities.
At Bradford Borough Court on 19th October, a Canadian born milliner and dressmaker Maria Coroner, of 77 Westgrove Street Bradford and who the newspapers described as “a respectable looking young woman aged twenty one years of age” was charged with having “written certain letters tending to cause a breach of the peace.”
According to the Chief Constable, J. Withers, Miss Coroner was, “to say the least of it, a very foolish young woman. The letter she sent him read:-
If the Bradford Police would like to make another gallant capture now is the time. I have arrived in town for the purpose of doing a little business. Bradford is the field that requires my labour. Of course knowing as I do that your men are so clevah it is not necessary to give my address not yet describe myself minutely. I will simply state that I am here and alone quite near the Town Hall.
I am, my dear sir, yours in the fight against wickedness. J. Ripper.
P.S. – Perhaps you would like my portrait, but you see I am in deep mourning for those ladies that I put to sleep, and do not wish to have one taken.
The Chief Constable told the court that he had thought it “a bit of foolishness on the part of some person and took no notice of it.” Seeing that her letter had not been answered Maria Coroner sent another letter to the Bradford Telegraph which duly published it:-
Would you permit me through the medium of your valuable paper to announce my arrival in Bradford. I would have wired you but you see the people would have gone to trouble and expence in order to receive me kindly, particularly the guardians of the peace; however, I shall start work as soon as possible as I have other engagements immediately that I finish here. Of course I have informed the Chief Constable by Letter of my presence in town but I forgot to send my card with name and address so that He might know where to call when having a desire to see me, poor dear old Bobbies how very clevar they are not so clever as my humble self, hoping that you will give this publication I am Dear Sir yours Etc. J. Ripper
When the newspaper published the letter it caused widespread nervousness and some panic amongst the people of Bradford and as a consequence the local police began making “diligent efforts to find the writer of these silly but disturbing epistles.” Those enquiries eventually led them to Maria Coroner’s lodgings where they found “some letter-paper of the kind upon which the letter was written.” Detective Inspector Dobson and Detective Sergeant Abbey then went to the shop where Maria worked and, on searching her boxes, found a copy of the letter that had been sent to the Chief Constable in the same handwriting. Taken back to her lodgings Maria at first denied any involvement. But, having considered her situation, she finally admitted her guilt and produced from her pocket “more literature of the same kind.” Her landlady commented that the girl had become so excited by reports of the Whitechapel Murders that she (the landlady) was afraid to go to bed at night.
In court Maria Coroner excused her “foolish conduct” by saying that she “had done it as a joke”. The magistrate, however, failed to see the funny side and remanded her in custody. When she next appeared, on the 23rd October, “a dense crowd fought for admission to the court.”
According to The Star, “The prisoner listened to the proceedings with an amused expression.” Appearing on her behalf Mr Atkinson asked what it was that she was charged with and was told that it was a breach of the peace under the common law. “I should like to see the common law,” he sneered, “it is so common I have not seen it.” He went on to argue that she was guilty of “making foolish statements only, and for no reason whatever she had been locked up since Saturday.”
Passing sentence on her Mr A. Briggs the Chairman of the Magistrates told her that she has been “excessively foolish” but that they believed that “she had been more foolish than anything else…” She was fined £20 and bound over to keep the peace for six months, being told that if she “again transgressed she would go to gaol.”
Newspaper reports also speak of a “lad in Glasgow” who “narrowly escaped prosecution for an offence which is too common at present.” In a letter, written in red ink and signed “Jack the Ripper”, he threatened that he was “going to pay Glasgow a trip” observing that” I hear there are fine women in Saltmarket, Glasgow, so I am going to pay you a visit.” The letter and unstamped envelope that contained it were placed in the hands of Sub Inspector Carmichael, with the result that the writer, “a boy belonging to a respectable family in Glasgow was discovered.”
When privately examined by Superintendent Orr the youth was said to have been utterly astonished that the Glasgow Police had “found him out,” and insisted that, although he had written the letter “for a lark”, he had, in fact, lost it and someone else must have found it and posted it. The police took account of his youth, noted his “state of trepidation” and opted to take no further action against him. He was, therefore, dismissed “with an admonition.”
Miriam Howells was a welsh housewife from Penrhiwceiber, who also decided it would be a great “lark” to send threatening letters to her neighbours Mrs Elizabeth Magor and Miss Margaret Smith. At the subsequent court hearing it was reported that Margaret Smith was “very frightened until she knew it was done for a lark” The letter she received read:-
Dear Miss Boss.
Before Sunday night I mean to have your life. I shall be upon you without your thinking. I will play a better trick with you than I did with the last one, and that was clever.
Jack the Ripper. Beware.
Elizabeth Magor told the court that Mrs Howells was a neighbour but that there was “never anything between them.” She also told how when she received the letter she had been greatly alarmed and had duly handed it over to the police. Her husband meanwhile had been extremely annoyed and had demanded an apology from a repentant Mrs Howells, who complied with a written apology and a guinea compensation.
The letter Mrs Magor received read:-
Dear Mrs Boss, – I mean to have your life before Christmas. I will play a ——– of a trick with you, old woman. I played a good one on the last, but this will be better. Aint I clever? —
Believe me to remain yours forever,
Jack the Ripper. Beware.
Evidently Miriam Howells must have been a joy to have as a neighbour!
However, it was reported in the local paper that “It was generally known in the village who the writer was” and that “It was looked upon as a stupid joke.” Indeed both of the recipients appear to have seen the funny side and there was “some annoyance, through the matter getting into the public press.” Miss Smith even went as far as to tell the court that the fact the letter had got into the press had “caused her as much annoyance as the receipt of it.”
The Stipendiary magistrate told Mrs Howells that he “thought it an unfortunate thing for her to have made a joke of the crimes in London of a ruffian, who so far had not been found. She had made a joke of crimes of a revolting character. He hoped she was thoroughly ashamed of it and that it would be a lesson to her, and to everyone else who had thought well to make these matters a subject of joke…” Mrs Howells was then dismissed.
Yet another Jack the Ripper letter writer to be charged was unearthed recently by Stephen Ryder who runs the excellent web resource casebook.org. The Morning Advertiser on December 18th 1888 reported that a girl named Charlotte Higgins, a fourteen-year-old domestic servant, had appeared before Torquay Magistrates Court the previous day charged with “writing threatening letters to her master, The Rev. Samuel Harvey, a retired clergyman.”
The Charlotte Higgins case is of interest in that she has not been particularly well documented and yet provides us with an insight into how seriously police forces throughout the country were taking these fictional threats from the “Whitechapel Murderer” by the end of 1888. Charlotte was a domestic servant in the household of the Rev. Samuel and Mrs Harvey of Holmdene, St. Marychurch.
According to the The Torquay Times and South Devon Advertiser, which reported the case on 21st December 1888:-
“The prisoner was neatly clad and though she listened most attentively to the evidence, yet showed no sign whatsoever that she realised the seriousness of her position. Notwithstanding that she had previously admitted her guilt to a police-sergeant, and in spite of the advice given her by her father, she pleaded “not guilty” in the most deliberate manner.”
The first witness to give evidence was Police Sergeant Bright who told the court that on the evening of the 12th December the Reverend S. Harvey had visited him and had handed over two letters which he and his wife and received. One of the letters threatened, “My God I’ll cut you up from head to foot; I’m the Whitechapel Murderer.” This, and other threats contained in the missives (the majority of the text was not made public as the magistrates considered the language “too disgusting” for public consumption) had evidently unnerved the Reverend Harvey and he asked for immediate police protection. The police certainly took the threats seriously and the household were given an overnight police guard.
The following day Bright went round to the Harvey house and went to see Charlotte Higgins in the kitchen. She took him to the back door and “showed him a place where she said a man had come over a wall at about half-past six o’clock on the same morning.” She claimed that the man had knocked on the door and when she asked him who he was he replied “Open the door or by God I will murder you.” She was so terrified by this, she told Bright, that she ran to her mistress’s room. That night Mrs. Harvey arranged for the gardener to sleep in the house. Bright went home and returned the following morning whereupon Mrs. Harvey handed him two further letters she had received.
At this point Bright appears to have grown suspicious of Charlotte Higgins, and he went to the kitchen to ask her if she possessed any writing materials. She said that she did and took him to a draw in which he found writing materials and a scrap book which Higgins confessed were hers. The police man then confronted her and accused her of sending threatening letters to her Mistress. Marching her to the wall over which she claimed the man had climbed he pointed to a pile of fresh earth and told her it most certainly had not been dislodged by someone climbing over the wall. At this point Higgins confessed that she had brought the earth from elsewhere in the garden and admitted that she had invented the man.
Police-sergeant Bright duly took her to Mrs. Harvey and in front of her mistress he charged Charlotte Higgins with sending threatening letters. The girl admitted her guilt and begged Mrs Harvey to forgive her. The ministers wife was evidently not about to forgive and forget and told the girl that “the offence was of too serious a nature to allow of that being done.” Charlotte was escorted to the police station where, on searching her clothing, Bright found an envelope similar to that which had contained one of the letters. This concluded the evidence of police-sergeant Bright.
The next witness was Mrs. Harvey who asked the court to note that she “grieved very much to have to appear against the prisoner, in whom (previously to Friday) she had placed the most implicit confidence.” She told the court that on 10th December she had come downstairs about 8 O’clock in the morning and had found a letter on the hall table. It purported to come from Mrs. Harvey’s niece, Miss Clifton, and began “Dear Auntie.” It informed her that her brother, Dr. Clifton, was gravely ill and asked that she visit him immediately. However, when she telegraphed her brother asking “if anything was really the matter” with him, she received the reply “Nothing known to me.” Sensing that the letter’s intent had been to lure her away from home she told that court that she had “felt uneasy” but that she “did not trouble anything further in the matter.”
Two days later at about 4.30pm, on the afternoon of Wednesday 12th December, Mrs. Harvey had been writing in her dining room when Charlotte Higgins had brought her a letter which she said had been posted through the letter box. According to the Torquay Times and South Devon Advertiser, “The contents of the letter were of such a frightful character that it made the witness’s hair stand on end and she had made up her mind that she could stop no longer in the neighbourhood.” She showed the letter to her husband and he promptly went to the police who placed an overnight guard on the house. Mrs. Harvey then told the court that she had since learnt that the different letters were written by the prisoner but expressed mystification at her motives. She had not reprimanded the girl and she was fulsome in her praise of Charlotte’s character and work record.
Sadly we do not know what it was about the letters that proved so terrifying to Mrs. Harvey that it caused her “hair to stand on end” and forced her to consider moving out of the neighbourhood. According to the local newspaper, “The letters were not read to the court, their contents being altogether too disgusting, but threats to murder Mr and Mrs Harvey were very general in them. In one case the writer wrote My God, I’ll cut you up fro head to foot; I’m the Whitechapel Murderer”
It was also revealed to the court that whilst searching for writing and writing material police-sergeant Bright had found a sealed packet in the prisoner’s room and on opening it he found some letters and a large doll. Around the body of the doll were wound two pieces of ribbon (value 1s) which the prisoner claimed were hers. However, it transpired that the material belonged to Mr and Mrs Harvey’s daughter who said that she had never given the ribbon to the accused. As a result Charlotte Higgins was also charged with theft.
The Chairman of the Magistrates Mr. E. Vivian then summed up and proceeded to pronounce sentence. With regard to the letters he stated that “the case in which the prisoner had been charged with sending very improper and, he might say, horrible letters to her mistress, the Bench had decided not to go into farther, but the other charge, that of stealing two pieces of ribbon, they were going to determine.”
He went on to say that they “considered it a very bad case” and they had decided to send the prisoner to gaol for three weeks, and once that sentence had been served she was to go to a reformatory for three years. In closing Mr. Vivian told the girl that he hoped that “through the education she would receive at the latter place, she would come out a reformed character.”
Doubtless the harshness of the sentence on a girl that, to quote Mrs. Harvey “a better child for work never stepped into a house”, was greatly influenced by the letter she had written purporting to come from the Whitechapel Murderer. Indeed those present at the trail evidently saw the sentence as unjustly harsh and as a consequence “The decision of the Bench was received with loud hisses by the public in the body of the Court.”
What is interesting about these known letter writers is that they were all said to have been respectable and ordinary Victorian citizens. Maria Coroner, for example, was described by a local newspaper as being “… a smart looking woman, apparently of greater intelligence than is usual amongst women of her class… and [she] has borne a thoroughly good character…” The census of 1891 shows her still living in Westgrove Street, albeit she had moved address and had become the head of the household at number 13. Evidently she had put her “J. Ripper” related past behind her and had moved on from something she, and many other people, had seen as nothing more than a bit of harmless fun. Even Inspector Dobson admitted in court that he “…considered the letters to be a “lark” and that he never thought that “Jack the Ripper” was in town.”
Mrs Harvey expressed her told mystification as to why Charlotte Higgins should have sent her such a letter and even applauded the girl as a model employee. The recipients of Miriam Howells’s missives, although expressing initial shock, all appear to have seen the funny side of the “lark” and were apparently more angered that the case had got to court than by their having received letters from “Jack the Ripper.”
Their actions serve to illustrate the mass appeal that the reporting of the Jack the Ripper murders was generating throughout the country at large, and there can be little doubt that many of the sickest and most perverted sentiments expressed in some of the other Jack the Ripper correspondence were written by similarly ‘respectable’ Victorian citizens who found the allure and titillation offered by the press reportage of the murders irresistible.
But the harshness of the treatment meted out by the authorities (particularly in the case of Charlotte Higgins whose sentence for theft was evidently influenced by her letter writing activities) illustrates just how seriously the powers that were took the avalanche of Jack the Ripper correspondence and shows their determination to make examples of those that they were able to trace in the hope of discouraging and curbing an activity that had become a disturbing and distracting national past time.
It is interesting to note that when, 90 or so years later, Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was at large a similar type of “lark” became very much the vogue in offices throughout England. When John Humble, or “Wearside Jack” as he became known, sent in a tape purporting to come from the Yorkshire Ripper the police set up a hotline for people to phone in and listen to the tape in the hope that somebody would recognise the voice. It was quite common for people who worked in offices to dial the hotline and then divert the the call to the extension of one of their female colleagues as a “joke.” Certainly Miriam Howells’s actions were little different to this public reaction to a later murder sensation.
At around the time that Maria Coroner and Miriam Howells were composing their prank missives, another anonymous correspondent was preparing to make good on a threat that had been contained in virtually all the letters received in early October, the threat to send a body part in the mail.
The recipient of this missive was George Lusk, president of the Mile End Vigilance Committee, who had been extremely busy throughout early October. In addition to gathering information from local informants he was also addressing meetings and liaising with the press. He had also been badgering both the Home Office and Queen Victoria endeavouring to get them to offer a reward for information that might lead to the apprehension of the killer. His name was therefore, frequently being mentioned in the press and he soon attracted what would today be known as a stalker, possibly even two.
On Thursday 4th October, at 4:15, a man apparently from 30 to 40 years of age, 5ft. 9in. in height, florid complexion, with bushy brown beard, whiskers and moustache, went to the private residence of Mr. Lusk in Alderney-street, Mile-end, and asked for him. He happened to be at a tavern kept by his son, and thither the man went, and after asking all sorts of questions relative to the beats taken by members of the Committee, the man “attempted to induce Mr. Lusk to enter a private room with him.” According to the News of The World:-
“The stranger’s appearance however was so repulsive and forbidding that Mr. Lusk declined, but consented to hold a quiet conversation with him in the bar-parlour. The two were talking, when the stranger drew a pencil from his pocket and purposely dropped it over the side of the table saying, “Pick that up.” Just as Mr. Lusk turned to do so he noticed the stranger make a swift though silent movement of his right hand towards his side pocket, and seeing that he was detected assumed a nonchalant air, and asked to be directed to the nearest coffee and dining-rooms. Mr. Lusk directed him to a house in the Mile End-road, and the stranger quietly left the house, followed by Mr. Lusk who went to the coffee-house indicated, and found that the man had not been there, but had given his pursuer the slip by disappearing up a court.”
Mr. George Lusk’s Vigilance activities had, it appears, made him a magnet for all manner sinister characters and sick individuals.
On 10th October another suspicious looking man was seen lurking outside his house. This time Lusk reported him to the police and a description of him was circulated. On the 12th of October Lusk was targeted by one of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ correspondents and received a letter in a handwriting supposedly similar to that of the ‘Dear Boss’ letter. It read:-
I write you a letter in black ink, as I have no more of the right stuff. I think you are all asleep in Scotland-yard with your bloodhounds, as I will show you to-morrow night (Saturday). I am going to do a double Event, but not in Whitechapel. Got rather too warm there. Had to shift. No more till you hear me again.
Jack The Ripper
Naturally George Lusk was beginning to fear for his personal safety, and no doubt that of his family, when yet another postcard addressed to ‘Mr. Lusk, Head Vigilance Committee, Alderney- street, Mile End’ arrived to taunt him still further:-
Say Boss –
You seem rare frightened, guess I’d like to give you fits, but can’t stop time enough to let your box of toys play copper games with me, but hope to see you when I don’t hurry much
Bye Bye Boss.
On 15th October a Miss Marsh was behind the counter in her father’s leather shop at 218 Jubilee Street, short distance from the London Hospital, when a man dressed like a cleric entered. He wanted to know about the Vigilance Committee’s reward poster in the shop window and asked if she knew the address of Mr. George Lusk. She suggested he enquire at the nearby Crown, but the man insisted he didn’t want to go to a pub. Obligingly she got out a newspaper that gave Lusk’s address, although not his house number, and read it out to the stranger who proceeded to take it down in a notebook.
Miss Marsh described the man as being around 45 years old, six feet tall, of slim build with a sallow complexion, dark beard and moustache. He spoke with what she took to be an Irish brogue.
No-one answering that description actually called on Lusk, but on the evening of Tuesday October 16th a small package, wrapped in brown paper and bearing an indistinct London postmark was delivered to Lusk in the evening mail.
Although addressed to him by name, it had the street in which he lived on it, but not the house number. Opening the package, Lusk was disgusted by the contents which consisted of a foul smelling piece of kidney and a letter which read:-
I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer
signed Catch me when you Can
The handwriting was identical to that of the post card Lusk had received a few days before. Lusk’s first thought was that it was just another sick joke and he assumed the kidney to be from a sheep or some other animal.
However, he decided to seek the opinions of his fellow Vigilance Committee members, and they were not so certain it was a joke. They, therefore, decided to seek a medical opinion as to whether the kidney was human or animal. It was duly taken to the Mile End Road surgery of Dr Frederick Wiles where, this doctor not being in, his assistant Dr Reed examined it and immediately pronounced it human. Reed then went for a second opinion and took it to the nearby London Hospital where he asked the Pathological Curator Dr Thomas Openshaw to examine the organ.
According to The Star, “By use of the microscope Dr Openshaw was able to determine that the kidney had been taken from a full-grown human being, and that the portion before him was part of the left kidney.” The newspaper went on to inform its readers that “There seems to be no room for doubt that what has been sent to Mr. Lusk is part of a human kidney, but nevertheless it may be doubted whether it has any serious bearing on the Mitre-square murder.”
Several newspapers, however, were quoting Openshaw as having categorically stated that the kidney was that of a woman, who had died within the previous three weeks. Openshaw felt a need to refute these claims and in an interview with a Star reporter he stated that, although he was of opinion that it was half of a left human kidney, he couldn’t say whether it was that of a woman, nor how long ago it had been removed from the body, as it had been preserved in spirits. The newspaper ended this report with the observation that “The whole thing may possibly turn out to be a medical student’s gruesome joke.”
The idea that the sending of the kidney was a prank perpetrated by a medical student appears to have struck the police from the outset. After Openshaw’s examination the organ was taken to Leman Street Police Station and then handed over to the City Police in whose jurisdiction Catharine Eddowes had been murdered. The first police report about it was submitted by Inspector James McWilliam of the City Police who on the 27th October commented that:-
“The kidney has been examined by Dr Gordon Brown who is of the opinion that it is human. Every effort is being made to trace the sender, but it is not desirable that publicity should be given to the doctor’s opinion, or the steps that are being taken inconsequence. It might turn out after all to be the act of a Medical Student who would have no difficulty in obtaining the organ in question.”
On 6th November Chief Inspector Swanson, who had met daily with Inspector McWilliam to discuss the matter, forwarded a report to the Home Office in which he stated:-
“The result of the combined medical opinion…is that it is the kidney of a human adult, not charged with a fluid, as it would have been in the case of a body handed over for purposes of dissection to an hospital, but rather as it would be in the case where it was taken from the body not so destined. In other words similar kidneys might & could be obtained from any dead person upon whom a post mortem had been made from any cause by students or dissecting room porter.”
Today, of course, it is impossible to say for certain whether or not the Kidney sent to Mr. Lusk was part of the one taken from Catherine Eddowes body, and, therefore, that it was sent by her murderer. It is, perhaps, the most debated over of all Jack the Ripper missives, and has been the subject of endless speculation and myth making. The doctors who examined it at the time appear to have reached the conclusion that it was hoax and this appears to have been the consensus amongst the police officers investigating the case, with the notable exception of Major Henry Smith the acting City Commissioner, who later recalled in his memoirs:-
“I made over the kidney to the police surgeon, instructing him to consult with the most eminent men in the Profession, and to send me a report without delay. I give the substance of it. The renal artery is about three inches long. Two inches remained in the corpse, one inch was attached to the kidney. The kidney left in the corpse was in an advanced state of Bright’s Disease; the kidney sent me was in an exactly similar state. But what was of far more importance, Mr Sutton, one of the senior surgeons at the London Hospital, whom Gordon Brown asked to meet him and another surgeon in consultation, and who was one of the greatest authorities living on the kidney and its diseases, said he would pledge his reputation that the kidney submitted to them had been put in spirits within a few hours of its removal from the body thus effectually disposing of all hoaxes in connection with it.”
Unfortunately no report from Sutton, if there ever was one, has survived, and it has to be said that Major Smith’s veracity has often been called into doubt.
Colleagues remembered him as being an entertaining and charming raconteur, but also commented on his ability to play fast and loose with the truth when it suited his story! Indeed Dr Brown himself was quoted in The Star on 22nd October 1888 as saying that “there is no portion of renal artery adhering to [the kidney], it having been trimmed up, so consequently, there could be no correspondence established between the portion of the body from which it was cut.”
In the same article he observed that the kidney exhibited “… no trace of decomposition, when we consider the length of time that has elapsed since the commission of the murder, we come to the conclusion that the possibility is slight of its being a portion of the murdered woman of Mitre Square…”
The Openshaw Letter
Whether or not the kidney was sent to Mr. Lusk by the murderer of Catharine Eddowes, its arrival in the investigation provided yet another macabre and gruesome twist to the saga, one which, inevitably, proved irresistible to the letter writers. Dr Openshaw’s comments to the newspapers ensured that his name became synonymous with the Lusk Kidney, and on 29th October he opened his mail to find that some anonymous prankster had decided to honour him with his very own missive:
Old boss you was rite it was the left kidny i was goin to hoperate agin close to you ospitle just as i was going to dror mi nife along of er bloomin throte them cusses of coppers spoilt the game but i guess i wil be on the jobn soon and will send you another bit of innerds
Jack the Ripper
O have you seen the devle with his mikerscope and scalpul a-lookin at a kidney with a slide cocked up.