Who was Jack the Ripper?

Facing down a hundred-year-old mystery, relentless detectives continue to search for the identity of the infamous killer, who terrorized the women of Whitechapel in autumn 1888.

The identity of Jack the Ripper has inspired 140 years of speculation and numerous portraits of the shadowy killer, including this modern engraving from the Donald Rumbelow Collection.
MARY EVANS/ACI

At the end of the 19th century a foreign traveler only had to spend a day sightseeing in London to feel stirred by England’s power. At Westminster the Houses of Parliament proudly proclaimed British global domination, while at Buckingham Palace Queen Victoria crowned the nation’s golden age. All along the Thames to the sea, lined with ship after ship of merchants and the Royal Navy, visitors could see for themselves the formidable maritime might of the largest empire the world had ever known.

But all was not well with London. Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness, describes London as  “one of the dark places of the earth.” To the theatergoers and shoppers thronging the well-lit, opulent streets of the West End, this description might have seemed out of place, but just three miles to the east, in the neighborhood of Whitechapel, disease, alcoholism, and poverty ravaged the lives of thousands of souls. It was a place that was, as the Diocese of London reported, “as unexplored as Timbuktu.”

The mystery of Jack the Ripper began on August 31, 1888, when the body of a dead woman was found in a Whitechapel street. Her throat had been cut and her abdomen gouged open. Three months later, when what became known as the “Autumn of Terror” had ended, four more women had undergone the same grisly fate.

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