the Whitechapel murders
and Jack the Ripper
 


   

an interpretation of the crime scene and post mortem data


 
What were the components of the characteristic 'signature' of the Ripper's modus operandi


 
What was the approach of the killer and how were the victims positioned when the fatal cut to the neck inflicted?

 
What type of knife was used to inflict such horrendous injuries?


 
Was the killer in any way skilled in anatomy and dissection?


 
Whitechapel murders home page


On this page attempts are made to unravel the information gleaned from post mortem reports and crime scene details as given at the inquests of the five canonical victims. Conclusions are based only upon witness testimony given by medical experts and police officers as reported in The Daily Telegraph and The Times and from other documents available from the National Archives, although few of the original inquest documents survive. Observations and reports from non-expert witnesses are of peripheral interest and were not generally employed in forming conclusions. A detailed examination of each murder and tabulation of all findings are published in by ear and eyes.
 


What were the components of the characteristic 'signature' of the Ripper's modus operandi

 

When serial Killers undertake complex murders they are likely to leave behind a ‘signature’ by their technique. Although a killer may wish his work to be recognised by deliberately making it characteristic, it is more likely the case that the signature will be unintentional by habitual actions. Clearly a killer who leaves his name written in the victim’s blood on a wall at each crime scene is giving a very obvious signature but generally the signature is far more subtle than that and involves several components. For example the simple act of killing a victim by cutting the throat would not in itself have been a signature, since this was not a rare means of killing at the turn of the nineteenth century, but unique and seemingly trivial components may have greater significance, especially if considered collectively.  
     It would be quite wrong to assume that for murders to be linked they must show all aspects of the same killer's signature and conversely, just because a murder shows several similarities with others does not necessarily mean to say that it is linked. The signature of a serial killer has much to do with those things that happen without realisation; the subconscious nuances and unavoidable actions that are essential to achieve gratification and are imperative driven. The killer’s signature is less about aspects that can be changed at will and thus contrived to deceive. There is also the matter of familiarity; if the killer knows that one action or approach succeeds then he will most likely repeat it. Occasionally, however, a killer may be forced to change his modus operandi due to unforeseen circumstances; this is how confusion arises and why it is important to identify more than one characteristic to the signature. The more bizarre the component the more clearly identifiable is the work of the same killer, but the easier it would be to perform a copycat crime if the details were widely known.
     Unfortunately, the newspapers of the day were rather specific in the way that details of murders were reported and almost every detail mentioned at the inquest end up in print for public consumption, frequently embellished in the editorial with misleading or otherwise inaccurate comment. At the inquest into the murder of Annie Chapman Dr Phillips tried to avoid giving details of the mutilations but was eventually forced to do so by the coroner and the jury. Phillips’s reasons were somewhat confusing however, since initially he wished to withhold details on the grounds they were disgusting and suggested that women and boys left the courtroom, which they did, but he then suggested that to reveal the details would be ‘thwarting the ends of justice’. The testimony given on each day of each inquest was reported more or less word for word in the newspapers or at least sufficient of it to ensure that anyone who wished to perform a copycat killing would be able to make a rather good job of it. Specific mention of the missing organs was also made in the newspapers, revelations that led to serious doubts as to the authenticity of a piece of human kidney sent to the chairman of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee as being a piece of that removed from the body of Catharine Eddowes. There remains to this day some doubt as to whether any organs were actually absent from the body of Mary Jane Kelly but the consensus of opinion suggests that her heart was not found at the scene. In any event many of the details of the murders were already available through gossip and rumour although these were inevitably coloured somewhat in passage from ears to lips. By the time Eddowes had been murdered a composite impression of the killer was that of a shadowy figure who attacked prostitutes, killing them by slashing their throats, and mutilating their bodies to remove organs as trophies. Indeed, this series of murders would have provided the perfect opportunity for other killers to have their crime blamed on Jack the Ripper. They merely needed to make the crime scene resemble what they imagined the Ripper would leave behind. 
    
By disregarding uninformed comment and focussing on the reported facts of each case it is possible to identify a signature for the Ripper murders from examination of the pathology and crime scene details for each of the five victims popularly regarded as attributable to the same serial killer. Once again, however, caution is necessary because not every signature component need necessarily be present at every crime scene and anomalies will be inevitable given that the circumstances of every crime are different and dependent to a large extent upon individual responses and reactions that are infinitely variable. From an examination of the details of the circumstances of death of each victim twenty-two signature or possible signature components were identified and the ten most significant of these were as follows:

  • Each victim was a prostitute 

  • Four out of five victims were killed outdoors in the street or in a yard

  • Four out of five victims received a fatal cut to the left side of the neck - more

  • With the exception of one recorded external stab wound to one victim all knife wounds were cuts, and stabbing was not a feature of the Ripper murders

  • There was mutilation or attempted mutilation involving the removal of organs from the body in four out of five cases and in the one in which there was no mutilation it seems that the killer was disturbed before he had the opportunity to progress

  • Organs were removed from the scene in three out of four cases

  • Four out of five victims were fully clothed when attacked and in only one instance was there evidence of the clothing being torn by the killer. In no case was the clothing cut and usually it was lifted or otherwise disturbed to allow access for mutilation 

  • There were no indications that any of the five victims struggled sufficiently to sustain defensive wounds and no screams were heard, and in only one case was there a preliminary attempt at strangulation

  • In four out of the five cases the assailant was probably right handed

  • In each case the killer had sufficient anatomical knowledge to target the carotid arteries and in two cases there was evidence of greater anatomical knowledge and dissecting skills

     The many similarities between the murders of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, and Eddowes strongly suggest that they were perpetrated by the same killer and the components of these murders will later be matched against the other Whitechapel murder victims. It is also clear that several facets of Mary Jane Kelly’s death do not fit well with the other four murders giving rise to a notion that she may have been a victim of another killer. There are ten features of the death of Mary Kelly that do not fit with the killer’s signature and the five most significant discrepancies are as follows:

  • Kelly was killed in her room 

  • Kelly lay on the bed and wore only a chemise at the time of the attack – it is possible that her killer may have at some point engaged with her in a sexual act

  • Kelly’s carotid artery was severed on the right side of the neck

  • There are strong indications that the killer may have been left handed

  • The killer did not demonstrate the same level of skill as that apparent in the other mutilated victims

Aspects of the murder of Mary Kelly are examined on the Mary Jane Kelly page and in considerable detail in By Ear and Eyes.

back to top


What was the approach of the killer and how were the victims positioned when the fatal cut to the neck inflicted?

Prostitutes in the East End of London could hardly be regarded as the most delicate examples of womanhood. They were frequently involved in fights, especially when drunk, and often carried scars and bruises as a consequence. The average street prostitute would be expected to put up a strong and vociferous fight if given half a chance, but the Ripper’s victims were not afforded such an opportunity. His approach was cool and clinical and it is highly unlikely that his killing routine was conducted in such a way that the victim for one second realised what was about to happen. A peculiarity of the Ripper murders is that in each case there was no indication that the victim was able to muster a defence to the attack. In no instance was there evidence of a struggle, no screams were heard, and each victim died quickly on the spot where they were attacked. On this basis, it seems unlikely that the Ripper would have wrestled his victims to the ground and he would not have engaged in an initial assault of any kind. The only assault was by knife cut precisely delivered to the side of the neck which severed the carotid artery leading to unconsciousness probably within in a minute, depending upon whether vessels were completely or partially severed on one or both sides of the neck. Death from exsanguination would follow shortly thereafter. So how did the killer manage to do that? The law of averages suggests that in the course attacking several women at least one assault will not go according to plan and the victim would have an opportunity to defend herself, scream, or even retaliate. Not so with these murders; there are no indications that the knife even once missed the target at the first attempt.     
    
This is an extraordinarily risky way to kill someone and highly prone to failure because of the small target area and relative ease of defence by the victim, especially if the initial wound does not find the target. The killer would also need to grip his victim with his free hand in order to steady and silence her while the fatal cuts were administered, although severing the windpipe would produce instant silence. Throat slashing was to some extent part of the culture of the day, often employing a cutthroat razor, but this method of killing could not to be used by anyone of a hesitant disposition; it does require skill, accuracy, and probably also some anatomical knowledge. The fact that the killer managed to practice his craft with such deadly efficiency gives testimony to the effectiveness of his technique and there are several factors that each makes a small contribution to forming an opinion as to how the killer may have approached and murdered his victims. This does not mean to say that his approach was exactly the same on each occasion because it probably wasn’t - variables over which he had no control would almost certainly ensure that, but a plausible scenario can be constructed.
     Excluding Mary Jane Kelly from this evaluation, i
t appears that the killer of the four remaining victims was right handed. Regardless a to the approach of the killer it is almost certain that the left side of the neck would be targeted by instinct with his left hand employed to steady the victim or to stifle any screams that she may attempt prior to delivering the wound. Several cuts on the neck of the victims and elsewhere run from left to right and support this idea, and although in the case of the first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, the police surgeon suggested otherwise, this interpretation is somewhat contrary to his reported findings. It is also unlikely that the killer inflicted the cuts to the neck while facing the victims unless they were lying on the ground. Such deep wounds would be difficult to inflict from the front with a knife held in one hand while attempting to secure and silence the victim with the other hand. Any assault from the front would also forfeit the element of surprise, giving the intended victim the opportunity to respond with defensive arm or body movements. With the possible exception of Annie Chapman, it also seems unlikely that the victims were wrestled to the ground before making he neck wounds. This approach would be highly likely to result in a struggle with screams and defensive manoeuvres from the victim. 
     On balance, the evidence suggests that t
he killer attacked from behind, first by placing the left hand across the mouth to both silence and steady the victim and then cutting across the victim’s throat from left to right with a knife held in his right hand. The victim would be taken completely by surprise and would be immediately immobilised. Her legs would give way and she would sink quickly to the ground assisted by the killer. Her position on the floor would be almost where she stood. The comments of the doctor who examined Elizabeth Stride suggest that the wounds to her neck may have been inflicted while the victim was falling to the ground, Stride having been pulled backwards by the scarf around her neck. One or two spurts of blood would issue from the severed vessels before the victim was flat on the ground but blood would not be distributed widely. He could even continue to make other cuts to the throat as the victim fell to the ground during which she could be effectively silenced by severance of the windpipe.
    
When seeking a victim, it is likely that the Ripper found a prostitute and engaged her in conversation on the pretence of placing some business her way. They would then set off to her lodgings or proceed to a secluded location for sex and on route the killer would wait for a suitable moment to attack her. A killer who intends to spend time with his victim must select a location that will afford the minimum risk of being disturbed. He would pick a time when they were alone on the streets or in a yard with little risk of being disturbed then, when she was momentarily distracted, he would step behind her, restrain her with one hand and forcing her head over to the right, would then inflict the fatal wound to he left side of her neck. If anything, the element of surprise would be easier to achieve while walking along than when their destination was reached. This approach would minimise the risks for the killer and afford him a high level of control through all phases of the murder. The killer’s ability to strike so effectively was devastating and the fact that Elizabeth Stride still clutched a packet of cachous in her hand as she bled to death is a frightening testimony to the speed and efficiency of his technique.  

back to top


What type of knife was used to inflict such horrendous injuries?

Expert testimony at the inquests of four of the five victims indicates that the killer used a very sharp knife to wound and mutilate his victims. The length of he knife was estimated overall to be between 5 to 8 inches in length, possibly with a thin blade. A murder weapon was not left at the crime scene in any instance so it is reasonable to assume that the killer used the same knife in each murder. A very sharp 5 to 8 inch bladed knife would be an extremely dangerous item to carry around and if the owner were to avoid self-inflicted wounds then the blade would have to be protected in some way. If sheathed such a knife could be concealed in the killer’s pocket or elsewhere about the body. It could even be wrapped in cloth and held, or concealed in a bag carried by the killer but these would tend to complicate the act of killing and thereby potentially jeopardise the advantage of a surprise attack. The Ripper favoured a simple approach which had much to do with the fact that he was a successful killer and never caught in the act.
    
There is no doubt that the knife was sharp – it easily cut through the laryngeal cartilages of the neck and through muscle and the tough mesenteric connections between abdominal organs as well as leaving cut marks on vertebral bone. The killer must have honed his knife to the sharpness of a cutthroat razor and probably using the same process.
    
The absence of stab wounds to any of the victims is a highly significant feature of the Ripper killings and a forceful reason why the murder of Martha Tabram can be excluded from consideration as one of the series. The only reported stab wounds were those to the groin and liver of Catharine Eddowes. Inquest testimony indicated the blade in this instance to have been sharp and pointed and at least one inch in width – the depth of the stab was not reported and most knives have a gradually tapering blade. A picture is thus forming of a slim bladed and extremely sharp knife and on balance it would be reasonable to assume that a six inch by one inch bladed knife would make a manageable implement for the killer’s purposes.
    
The cutthroat razor was a popular weapon of the day and many a murder was committed as the implement lived up to its name. Any man who shaved owned at least one cutthroat razor, and there are several distinct advantages in using such as a murder weapon; it is relatively small, easily concealed, and very sharp with a protected blade. However there are two major disadvantages; it has no point, thus cannot be used for stabbing, and it is awkward to use, even for cutting. There is a significant risk of self-inflicted injuries in the course of using it for other than to shave with. Jack the Ripper did not use a cutthroat razor to kill and mutilate his victims.

back to top


Was the killer in any way skilled in anatomy and dissection?

On this issue it’s important to follow opinions of the day. The doctors who examined the bodies of the murder victims were of the opinion that in at least two instances the killer had some anatomical knowledge and dissection skills that allowed him to remove organs. It also seems likely that the killer was aware of neck anatomy and vasculature, allowing him to precisely deliver fatal wounds. On balance, it would appear that the murders of Nichols, Chapman, Stride, and Eddowes were probably conducted by someone whose approach was more on the basis of anatomical knowledge than on chance alone. The extensive mutilation to Mary Kelly’s body is again the exception and where so much mutilation exists it is difficult to ascribe skill to the killer. There does seem to have been rather more of a ‘slash and grab’ approach in this instance.
    
There is a tendency to judge the opinions of those who investigated the Ripper murders at the time, by the standards of today. This is quite wrong and all too often results in a conclusion that the investigators were stupid or inept. This simply is not the case and although they were disadvantaged by the limited extent of investigative techniques available, they knew the standards of education, the calibre of people comprising the population, the nature of the workforce, and the minutia of everyday life. Thus, while many people in 1888 may have known what a kidney looked like, since offal was commonly eaten in those days, it would be unreasonable to assume that they could locate and remove the organ from a human body. Such a situation is even less likely for the uterus; the organ would have been neither well known nor easily recognised by much of the male population at that time. Even today in a reasonably well-educated society there are not too many people who can precisely locate body organs in situ as opposed to pointing to them on a diagram.
    
While possessing some anatomical and dissection skills, the murderer did not necessarily need to be a doctor or student of medicine. Many trades of the day involved skill with a sharp knife and those working in an abattoir would be well acquainted with exsanguination via vessels in the neck and the anatomical location of organs – the arrangement of organs in the pig for instance is pretty much the same as that in a human.

back to top


home Whitechapel Whitechapel victims interpretation of findings how many victims? Mary Jane Kelly resources by ear and eyes

© karyo magellan 2001-2006