One of the most iconic images of Jack the Ripper is that of a swarthy figure in a top hat and swirling cape stalking his victims through the gas-lit alleys of old London.
The top hat – also known as a high hat, a cylinder hat, or – more informally – a topper, had been around since the 18th century and was viewed as an essential part of a gentleman’s wardrobe.
The less well-off, with social pretensions also liked to wear one, although theirs would often be a cast-off that had been acquired from one of the many second-hand clothes shops that thrived in the poorer quarters of the Victorian metropolis.
JACK THE RIPPER’S TOP HAT
However, Jack the Ripper almost certainly didn’t wear one.
Well actually, that might not be quite correct.
He may have worn one.
Since we don’t know who Jack the Ripper was we can’t say with any degree of certainty whether he wore a top hat at some stage in his life – so, let’s just say that he didn’t wear one on the nights of the murders.
PEOPLE WHO MAY HAVE SEEN HIM
Witnesses who may have seen the victims with their murderer on the nights of their deaths described a variety of headgear.
Mrs. Elizabeth Long, who saw Annie Chapman chatting with a man on the pavement outside 29 Hanbury Street shortly before her body was found in the backyard of that building, said that the man she saw was wearing a brown deerstalker hat.
Israel Schwarz, who saw Elizabeth Stride being attacked by a man outside the entrance to Dutfield’s Yard, fifteen minutes before her body was found in the yard, stated that the man was wearing a black cap with a peak.
Joseph Lawende, who saw Catherine Eddowes talking with a man outside the entrance to Mitre Square at 1.30 am on the 30th of September, fifteen minutes before her body was found in the Square’s south-west corner, described the man he saw as wearing a cloth cap with a peak.
George Hutchinson, who may have seen Mary Kelly with her murderer in the early hours of the 9th of November, 1888, claimed that the man that he saw was wearing a dark felt hat turned down in the middle.
NOT A TOP HAT IN SIGHT!
Of course, we cannot say with a hundred percent certainty that any of these men was Jack the Ripper, but what is worthy of note is that none of the witness descriptions involved the man they saw wearing a top hat.
The media of the day produced illustrated depictions of the murderer that were published at the time of the atrocities, and they show him in a variety of hats and caps most of which were based, admittedly in some cases loosely, on the witness depictions.
THE ONLY DEPICTION OF A TOP HAT
The first, and, indeed, only, contemporary depiction of him wearing a top hat is this one that appeared in The Penny Illustrated Newspaper on Saturday the 17th of November, 1888.
WHY THE TOP HAT?
And yet the top hat remains indelibly fixed in the public imagination as an integral item in Jack the Ripper’s wardrobe.
But why should this be?
Well, in short, we owe it to film versions of the Jack the Ripper story in which the murderer is nearly always shown wearing a top hat, an item of apparel which, especially in silent movies, was often used as a readily recognizable trope to depict a villain.
But Jack the Ripper, at least on the nights of his murders, almost certainly did not wear one.