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"A Letter From Hell"

By Kevin Robbie | published Saturday, October 5, 2013 |
Thursday Review Contributing Writer

“Jack the Ripper” is a name associated with a serial killer who murdered several women in the autumn of 1888, in the east end of London, an area known as Whitechapel. This fall marks the 125th anniversary of those infamous killings, made more famous over the last century in hundreds of books, motion pictures and television shows.

But in London that year, the police and investigative authorities made extensive efforts to identify and find the killer, even seeking and receiving assistance from local residents. Theories abound to this day regarding his true identity, but it remains unknown. Although the murders were very real and gruesome, the subject of Jack the Ripper has attained the status of folklore and “Ripperology” is a term commonly used to describe the study and analysis of this topic.

In 1888, London was the world’s largest capital city and Whitechapel was the poorest area of London. Located in the east end of the crowded city, it was home to 76,000 residents, many of whom were immigrants living in squalid conditions. Many families lived in dingy one-room dwellings and 40% of their children died before the age of 5. Malnourishment was common. Proper health care and sanitation were scarce as were jobs. Whitechapel’s high unemployment level also led to a high crime rate. One of the most common vices was prostitution and police estimated that up to 1,200 prostitutes plied their trade on any given day in Whitechapel. Many of those women were alcoholics and were otherwise unemployed. However, the majority of people living in densely-packed Whitechapel were hard-working, law-abiding folks engaged in a daily struggle to survive. As for the upper and middle class residents of London, Whitechapel might as well have been on another planet, and the grungy neighborhood was largely ignored by members of the upper crusts.

In October, 1888, George Lusk was the chairman of the Mile End Vigilance Committee in Whitechapel. A local businessman, Lusk was a builder and decorator by trade who was also active in his local church. The committee had been formed in September by Lusk and other businessmen in response to two grisly murders which had recently taken place in Whitechapel. The purpose of the committee was to render assistance to the police in their efforts to find the killer.

Lusk and other members of the committee had been active in patrolling the streets of Whitechapel in addition to employing private detectives. The committee had also beseeched the British Home Office to offer a cash reward to anyone who provided information leading to the arrest of the killer. When the requests to the Home Office went unheeded, the committee offered its own reward as an inducement to any potential witnesses to come forward.

On October 16, Lusk received a letter bearing a smudged London postmark. The letter had been mailed October 15. The envelope was written in red ink. Lusk was already accustomed to receiving mail related to the “Whitechapel murders,” as the media was calling them. Many of the letters offered support and encouragement and were from well-intentioned people. But the letter in the smudged envelope stood out. The letter, also written in red ink, was attached to a small box. The heading of the letter read “From Hell.” It was signed “Catch me when you Can.” The signatory referred to the contents of the small box, a foul-smelling piece of a kidney. The letter stated “I fried and ate the rest of the kidney. It was very nise.” (misspelling in the original). Lusk was disturbed by the letter and its rancid contents and showed them to the other members of the Mile End Committee. They were convinced the package was not a prank. In fact, two other bizarre letters had been previously received by Lusk which also purported to be written by the killer. The police had been shown the letters and their opinions were divided as to the authenticity of the strange missives. Perhaps they were reluctant to admit that—if the letters were authentic—the killer was playing a game that the police were losing.

The kidney was shown to Dr. Thomas Openshaw, a pathologist with London Hospital. He concluded that the piece of kidney was a portion of a left human kidney and showed signs of Bright’s Disease, a now-obsolete term for nephritis. The killer’s most recent victim, Catherine Eddowes, was found dead in Mitre Square on September 30th. Her left kidney showed the effects of an advanced stage of Bright’s disease, which may have been aggravated by excessive alcohol consumption. On the night of her death Eddowes, who was 46 years old, had been arrested for public drunkenness. Upon being released a few hours later, she was seen walking out of the Bishopsgate police station and saying “good night” to the desk sergeant. Catherine Eddowes was found dead at 1:45 a.m. She had been disemboweled and the killer had mutilated her face and removed her uterus. The cause of death was described as a “hemorrhage of the left carotid artery. Death was immediate or nearly so.” The killer had cut her throat.

Catherine Eddowes is considered the fourth of five “canonical” victims of Jack the Ripper as the murders are linked together by various contemporary documents. However, this traditional number is disputed as are many other issues regarding the Whitechapel murders. The mainstream press, authors and filmmakers have vetted literally hundreds of suspects over the last century, and one private investigator recently declared the cased “closed,” and fingered a German merchant sailor—later caught in the U.S. by New York police for a similar murder there—part of a crew who may have routinely made port in London.

But whatever the actual number, the killings became increasingly sadistic and involved extensive mutilation of the victim’s bodies. By the time of Eddowe’s death, much of Whitechapel was in a state of panic and the killings had become front-page news in the print media.

At that point, the killings stopped—until November 9th…

[Thursday Review writer Kevin Robbie will bring us more on the subject of Jack the Ripper during October.]