Men With Black Bags

During early October, 1888, the Whitechapel murderer had acquired two important things which have remained an intricate part of his persona ever since.

The first, of course, was the name “Jack the Ripper.”

This was the chilling signature to the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, which the police had made public in early October, 1888, and which was now spawning numerous imitators who were starting to bombard the authorities with letters either offering suggestions on how to catch the perpetrator, or which were claiming to actually be him and were boasting of the author’s supposed East End atrocities.

The second was his iconic shiny black bag, which he has been portrayed as carrying in films, tv series – as well as in book and magazine illustrations – ever since.

A top hatted figure by some gas-lamps.
The Popular Image of Jack The Ripper.


Of course, there is no evidence that the Whitechapel murderer – whoever he (or she) might have been – ever carried such an item of apparel.

But so ingrained is the image of the murderer carrying such an article in the collective imagination that I am sure that,  if I asked you to close your eyes and picture Jack the Ripper, the image of a bag carrying, top-hatted maniac would probably come readily to mind!

Just how quickly the black-bag and the name Jack the Ripper became associated with the unknown miscreant carrying out his murderous atrocities in the East End of London quickly becomes apparent as you read the newspaper accounts of early October, 1888.

Take, for example, the following article which appeared in The Globe, on Wednesday, 10th October, 1888


“A well-informed correspondent states that he has the following information from an undeniably authentic source, and from careful and persistent inquiries in various quarters he is able to relate the news as fact, though for obvious reasons names and addresses are for the present suppressed.

A certain member of the Criminal Investigation Department has recently journeyed to Liverpool and there traced the movements of a man which have proved of a somewhat mysterious kind.

The height of this person and his description generally are fully ascertained, and among other things was in possession of a black leather bag.


This man suddenly left Liverpool for London, and for some time occupied apartments in a well-known first-class hotel in the West-end.

It is stated that for some reason or another this person was in the habit of “slumming”; he would visit the lowest parts of London, and scour the slums of the East End.

He suddenly disappeared from the hotel leaving behind the black leather bag and its contents, and he has not returned.


He left a small bill, unpaid, and ultimately an advertisement appeared in The Times, setting forth the gentleman’s name, and drawing attention to the fact that the bag would be sold under the Innkeepers’ Act to defray expenses unless it was claimed.

This was done last month by a well-known auctioneer in London, and the contents, or some of them, are now in the possession of the police, who are thoroughly investigating the affair.


Of these, we, of course, cannot more than make mention, but certain documents, wearing apparel, cheque books, prints of an obscene description, letters, etc., are said to form the foundation of a most searching inquiry now on foot, which is being vigilantly pursued by those in authority.

It has been suggested that the mysterious personage referred to landed in Liverpool from America, but this far is no more than a suggestion.”


Sadly, I can find no record of the name of the suspect in question ever being made public, which is a great pity.

Two possible suspects might fit the bill for being this mysterious individual – James Maybrick and Dr Francis Tumblety.

But, the suggestion that either of them was this gentleman in question is, I have to stress, nothing more than idle speculation on my part.


The same article also contained the following report about another man who had found himself detained by the police because of his suspicious behaviour:-

“A respectably dressed man, believed be a traveller, got drunk on Monday, and was found wandering about Whitechapel at five yesterday morning.

He had been quarrelling with some women, who informed the police.

He was taken to the police station and detained while police made inquiries about him.

The inquiries turned out satisfactory, and the man was released.”


Meanwhile, over in Covent Garden, another gentleman had been attracting attention to himself by wandering aimlessly around the market, carrying – yes you’ve guessed it – a black bag.

What is interesting about this story is the suggestion that, because he was suspected of being Jack the Ripper, even the hardy market porters appear to have been afraid of him.

The article read:-

“At Bow-street Police-court yesterday George Henderson, a man of singular appearance, was charged before Mr. Vaughan with being a suspicious person, loitering about the streets.

Police-constable 411 E said that about 3.30 a.m. there was considerable excitement in Covent-garden Market, where it was rumoured that “Jack the Ripper” was going about threatening people.

He saw the prisoner wandering about aimlessly.

He carried a black bag, and his actions were very strange.

Several people, Covent Garden porters and others, appeared to be alarmed, and the witness took the prisoner to the station.


There he was searched, and as 54 pawn-tickets were found in his possession, and, as he could give no proper account of himself, he was detained.


Among other things found on him was a rough draft of a letter which has recently appeared in print suggesting to the Home Secretary that those who were harbouring the Whitechapel murderer felt that they were equally guilty as accomplices after the act, and could not come forward and give him up, no matter for what reward, until a free pardon was offered to them.


Witnesses were called for the prisoner, who satisfactorily explained that was a respectable man, and Mr. Vaughan discharged him, at the same time advising him not go about the streets in a similar way again.

At such an hour in the morning, he was much better at home.”