What did Jack the Ripper look like?
The honest answer to that question is, we don’t know, as we do not know who Jack the Ripper was, and there are as many descriptions of the perpetrator of the crimes, that were given by people who may have seen his face, as there are suspects.
THE IMAGE OF JACK THE RIPPER
However, the universal image of him is of a toff, smartly attired in a dark coat, top hat, and carrying a black bag.
This is the favoured depiction of him in films, dramas, and documentaries, as well as on book covers and in magazine articles; and it is so firmly rooted in the public consciousness that, if I were to ask you now to close your eyes and build up a mental picture of Jack the Ripper, this is the one that would come most readily to most people’s minds.
And, interestingly, it is an image of the murderer that began to take shape in October and November 1888 at the time when the murders were taking place.
REPORTERS ARRIVE IN THE DISTRICT
In the aftermath of the murder of Mary Kelly, which took place in Miller’s Court, off Dorset Street, Spitalfields on the morning of Friday the 9th of November, 1888, reporters began arriving in the neighbourhood desperate to find any information they could about the victim and, if possible, about the perpetrator of the crime.
Since the police had Miller’s Court sealed off, and were sharing very little information with the “gentlemen of the press”, the journalists had little choice but to start questioning the locals in the hope that somebody would provide them with information, or even a possible clue.
On the afternoon of the murder, a reporter working for a news agency came across a young woman by the name of Annie Paumier, who was twenty-two years old, and who may well, so the press intimated, have come face to face with the killer.
Over the next few days, her story was widely reported in newspapers across the country, and, when it did so, it helped to foster an idea of the murderer’s appearance that is, to a large extent, still with us today.
THE SINISTER MAN
At around twelve noon on Friday the 9th of November, Annie Paumier was selling roasted chestnuts at the junction of Widegate Street and Sandy’s Row, a location that was about two minutes walk from Dorset Street where the murder of Mary Kelly had occurred.
As Annie stood at her pitch selling her chestnuts, she was approached by a man, who came up to her and said:- “I suppose you have heard about the murder in Dorset Street.”
The St James’s Gazette took up the story in its next day’s edition:-
“She replied that she had, whereupon the man grinned and said, “I know more about it than you.”
He then stared into her face and went down Sandys Row, another narrow thoroughfare that cuts across Widegate Street.
When he had got some way off, however, he looked back, as if to see whether she was watching him, and then vanished.
SHE DESCRIBES THE MAN
Mrs. Paumier said that the man had a black moustache, was about five feet six inches high, and wore a black silk hat a black coat, and speckled trousers. He also carried a black, shiny bag, about a foot in depth and a foot-and-a-half in length.
HE ACCOSTED THREE OTHERS
Mrs. Paumier stated further that the same man accosted three young unfortunates whom she knew on Thursday night, and they chaffed him and asked what he had in the bag and he replied, “Something that the ladies don’t like.”
SARAH RONEY’S STATEMENT
The Gazette, then published a brief statement from one of three women who had encountered the mysterious stranger on the Thursday night, the day before the murder.
“One of the three young women she named, Sarah Roney, a girl of about twenty years of age, stated that she was with two other girls on Thursday night in Brushfield Street, which is near Dorset Street, when a man wearing a tall hat and a black coat, and carrying a black bag, came up to her and said, “Will you come with me?”
She told him that she would not, and asked him what he had in the bag, and he said, “Something the ladies don’t like.”
He then walked away.”
THE END OF IT
And so Annie Paumier and Sarah Roney faded back into the obscurity from which they had briefly emerged, and today it is all but impossible for us to judge the veracity of their statements.
If the man did exist, and their encounters with him had occurred as they said they had, then he may well have been just one of the many eccentrics that the Jack the Ripper case was attracting whose behaviour could be, to say the least, worrying.
It is, of course, possible that the women made their stories up and invented the sinister stranger in order to enjoy their moments in the spotlight or possibly even in return for some financial recompense that was proffered by the journalist.
THE LEGEND OF JACK THE RIPPER
However, as far as the legend of Jack the Ripper is concerned, the impact of their statements cannot be underestimated.
For their widely reported description of the man – coupled with the claim in the newspapers that Annie Paumier’s statement afforded an “important clue to the murderer” – helped foster the impression that the killer was a gentleman.
And it helped cement an image of Jack the Ripper that had been forming in the minds of the public at large since the murder of Elizabeth Stride, which had taken place on the 30th of September 1888, that the Whitechapel murderer wore a black top hat, a dark coat, and carried a black bag.
Whoever the man was that accosted Sarah Roney and Annie Paumier, the description they gave of him would soon find its way into the folklore of the crimes, and when it did so it helped propagate at least part of the legend of Jack the Ripper.