The Police Hunt For Jack The Ripper

The other night I watched an episode of Criminal Minds in which the team addressed a group of criminology students about a serial killer whom they had hunted for, I believe, a period of 20 years before eventually catching him.

Individual team members told their audience how their investigation had developed and how bits and pieces of evidence gradually came together to give them an idea of the type of suspect they were looking for, likely childhood traumas that had led that suspect to begin his crime spree and then on through his various murders to tracing him and bringing him to justice.

The wonders of a criminal investigation done for television.

Hunted, sorted and jailed in less than sixty minutes!


It set me wondering about what would happen if the detectives who handled the Jack the Ripper investigation – Abberline, Reid, Anderson, Swanson and, just because I hate leaving him out, Warren – were to be asked to undertake a similar lecture?

What insights would they be able to give those students into the type of suspect they were looking for and would the claim, that many officers who worked on the case made, that the killer’s identity was in fact known to many them actually stand up to close scrutiny?


I honestly believe that it is safe to say that the hunt for Jack the Ripper is the longest running man hunt in criminal history.

Indeed, it is safe to say that it is still going strong over 125 years after the crimes were committed!

Admittedly, the police themselves gave up on the case and closed their investigation a very long time ago!

But thousands of amatuer sleuths have since been happy to pick up the gauntlet and run with it and, in so doing, have contributed an awful lot of useful information about the most famous murder spree in criminal history.


But what of the original investigation carried out by various members of the Metropolitan Police in 1888? How effective was it and, more importantly, is it possible  that they missed vital clues and pieces of evidence that allowed Jack the Ripper to slip through the net and evade justice?

The first important point to make about the Victorian detectives is that they weren’t hunting Jack the Ripper but were hunting the person responsible for a series of crimes that were officially known as the Whitechapel Murders.


As a result, the neat and tidy figure of the so-called “canonical” five victims was an unknown concept to the likes of Abberline and Reid. Nor did they have the luxury of the oft quoted time frame of August 31st 1888 to 9th November 1888. As far as they were concerned any murder, or even attack, that took place in the East End of London in the late 1880’s and the early 1890’s had the potential of being another atrocity by the Whitechapel Murderer.


So, as far as the police at the time were concerned, the first murder was that of Emma Smith, carried out in early April 1888.

Emma Smith, the first Whitechapel Murders victim, is followed by her attackers.
Emma Smith being followed by her attackers.

Now, Emma Smith almost certainly was not a victim of the killer we now know as Jack the Ripper.

Indeed, she survived the initial attack and was, therefore, able to reveal the fact that she had been attacked by a gang. However, her death, or, as it became, murder, is significant in several respects.

Firstly, she is the first name to appear on the generic Whitechapel Murders file that encompasses the canonical five (Mary Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Kelly) as well as several murders that may, or may not, have been the work of the ripper.

Secondly, the fact she claimed to have been attacked by a gang most certainly influenced the early stages of the police investigation into the Jack the Ripper crimes, as the police evidently believed that the murders were gang related.

However, in May, June and July 1888 the police probably paid little heed to the death of Emma Smith and had, no doubt, come to see it as one of the many violent crimes for which the area was infamous at the time.


But then, in early August 1888, Martha Tabram was murdered in George Yard, one street away from the corner where Emma Smith had been attacked.

The attack on poor Martha was as frenzied as it was savage, and multiple stab wounds peppered her upper body.

Although Martha’s death most certainly caused consternation in the area, the police were still of the opinion that a gang was responsible.

This belief was still held a few weeks later when, on August 31st 1888, Mary Nichols was murdered in Buck’s Row and the Jack the Ripper crimes, as we now know them, got under way.

In the wake of the Mary Nichols Murder the belief that a gang was responsible began to waiver, not just amongst the police put amongst the local populace and the press at large also.


This was the period when the police investigations amongst the local prostitutes yielded the likely sounding suspect “Leather Apron.”

A Victorian press image showing Leather Apron.
Leather Apron

Unfortunately the Leather Apron scare backfired alarmingly in that press speculation that he was a member of the local immigrant community led to racial unrest in the area and the police were forced to face the alarming prospect that there might well be anti-Jewish rioting in the area.

As a consequence, they began substituting  witness descriptions of suspects being of Hebrew appearance with the more generic of foreign appearance. This was the main reason why, all conspiracy theories aside, Sir Charles Warren, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, ordered the erasure of the Goulston Street graffito.


If there was a time when we can say that the actual investigation began in earnest, it would be in the wake of the murder of Annie Chapman on 8th September 1888.

This is the period when Inspector Frederick George Abberline was brought back to the area to head up the on the ground investigation and when Chief Inspector Swanson, at Scotland Yard, was put in overall charge of reading and assessing every bit of information that came in on the case.

Thus, by mid September 1888, the team was in place that would go to work on the case and which devote an enormous amount of time to trying to bring the perpetrator to justice.


Of course, at this time, one of the most important names in the entire murder spree was yet to make an appearance.

In early October 1888, the police released a letter which had been sent to the head of a London News Agency in late September 1888.

The letter, written in gloating terms, purported to come from the perpetrator of the recent East End murders and it taunted the police about their inability to catch him.

But, it also bore the chilling signature “Jack the Ripper”, a name that the press and public alike latched onto with the result the Whitechapel Murders were turned into an international circus and the unknown miscreant responsible for them was suddenly elevated to the realm of legend.

Thus the hunt for “Jack the Ripper” effectively began in early October 1888 and it has, more or less, been going on ever since.