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Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Jack The Ripper's First Victim, August 31, 1888

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Today in 1888, the murderer who would become known as Jack the Ripper murdered his first victim in the Whitechapel area of London. Possibly the most famous serial murderer of all time, Jack the Ripper's legend has grown over the past 118 years to the point where it is now difficult to separate the fiction from the facts of the case.

Whitechapel is a section of the East End of London, a part of the city then well-known for its poverty and roughness. Whitechapel consisted of many narrow, dark streets where prostitutes plied their trade with little concern of arrest or harassment from the local police. With this laxity also came the knowledge that these ladies of the evening had little to rely on in the way of protection from abuse, murder and rape. When discussing Jack the Ripper, it is important to remember that his crimes did not become famous strictly because they were serial murders; they became infamous because of their brutality. Violence towards prostitutes and even murder were not uncommon in the East End during the 19th century, so were it not for a few important distinctions it is possible that Jack the Ripper's crimes would have been considered run-of-the-mill crimes of passion.

Although we will never know for sure, it is theorized that Jack the Ripper killed five women, all of them prostitutes or alleged to be so. However, there are at least 12 additional women who may have fallen prey to his brutality. Little was known about the habits of serial killers in the 19th century and many forensics techniques that are common today were unknown then. Jack the Ripper's methods, though perverse enough to not be described in detail here, required the skill of someone who either had at least basic surgical training or who had worked as a butcher.

In September, 1888 police were searching the area of a recent murder when they found a bloodstained piece of clothing in an alleyway. Written nearby in white chalk was a message that appeared to have come from someone who was only semi-literate. The message seemed to be anti-Semitic in nature, although it is unclear how this had any bearing on the victims. Did Jack the Ripper leave a clue? We will never know, although it is possible that the scrap of cloth and the graffiti have no connection other than coincidental placement.

During Jack the Ripper's killing spree, local papers and police received a flood of letters from people who had leads or who claimed to be the killer. Three letters received serious attention, although the first one is the most believable. It was sent to the Central News Agency on September 25, 1888 and introduced the name "Jack the Ripper" to the world. Police published the letter on October 1st in the hope that someone would recognize writing style or handwriting. While nothing substantial came to light, subsequent letters copied the original's style and penmanship, making it difficult to know if more authentic letters were received.

Murders of the style of Jack the Ripper became scarce after 1889, so it is assumed that around that time the murderer moved on, died, or quit before the investigation pointed in his direction. Several men who either lived in or frequented the Whitechapel area were brought in for questioning, but all had alibis for their location during the first five murders. Modern investigators had generated more suspects, but since all of them (and any potential witnesses) have been dead for many years, conclusive proof is impossible to find.

An industry has sprung up around several conspiracy theories involving the British royal family, including one that Prince Albert Victor, grandson of Queen Victoria, was Jack the Ripper. These theories all suffer from lapses of a factual nature. As intriguing as this case remains, it is fairly certain that the identity of Jack the Ripper will never be known.

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