Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

A 130-year-old medical cold case: Who was Jack the Ripper?

Kevin R. Loughlin
Boston, Massachusetts, USA


As murder followed murder and mutilated bodies were discovered and described in the press, one can imagine the fear that swept the hardscrabble Whitechapel section of London in 1888. Populated with many immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe and Russia, unemployment was rampant and tenements were found on most streets. It was in this neighborhood that five young women referred to as the “canonical five” were murdered and mutilated within a few blocks of each other in a three-month period of 1888. The victims were Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols on August 31, Annie Chapman on September 8, both Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on September 30, and Mary Jane Kelly on November 9.1 Martha Tabram, Alice McKenzie, Frances Coles, and the Pinchin Street “torso” were also murdered in the same general area at about the same time, but the patterns of their murders suggested they were not killed by the same person.2

Figure 1. Jack the Ripper signature on “Dear Boss” letter

There was a distinct signature to the murders of the “canonical five.” They were all apparently first strangled from behind, then had their throats slashed, and their faces and bodies were then mutilated. Three of the victims had portions of their bodies removed. Annie Chapman had her intestines thrown over her shoulder and her uterus and a portion of her vagina were missing. Catherine Eddowes had her left kidney removed as well as a major portion of her uterus. Mary Jane Kelly, like Chapman, was eviscerated and her heart had been removed.

For over 130 years, these homicides have remained unsolved. Four fundamental questions have never been answered. Who was the killer or killers? What was the motivation behind the crimes? Why were the bodies so mutilated? Why did the killings cease as suddenly as they began?

Over the ensuing decades, no fewer than one hundred individuals have been considered as possible suspects, but no one has ever been conclusively identified. Our task will be to review the evidence of guilt of the individuals who have most often been considered as suspects and offer some conclusions as to the identity of the killer.


The Ripper Letters

The source of the sobriquet ”Jack the Ripper” has its origin in three letters.3 The “Dear Boss” letter was dated on September 25, received by the Central News Agency on September 27, and forwarded to Scotland Yard on September 29. In it the author mentions, “The next job I do I shall clip the lady’s ears off…” In fact, it is notable that one of the victims, Catherine Eddowes, killed on September 30 was found to have part of one ear severed at the crime scene. This letter is signed, “Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” (Figure 1)

On October 1, the Central News Agency received the “Saucy Jack Postcard.” This postcard makes reference to the “double event” murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, which occurred the day before. Years later in 1931, a journalist, Fred Best, confessed to writing the Dear Boss Letter and Saucy Jack Postcard to “keep the business alive.”3

The final communication, the “From Hell Letter,” was sent to George Lusk, the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee on October 16. The letter arrived in a small box containing half a human kidney. Coincidently, Catherine Eddowes had one of her kidneys removed. The writer stated that he had fried and eaten the other half of the kidney and ended the letter, “…catch me when you can Mishter Lusk.”3 A physician, Thomas Openshaw, concluded that the kidney came from a middle-aged female who was a heavy drinker. This description fit Catherine Eddowes, a forty-six-year-old alcoholic.


The State of Forensic Medicine

It is important to acknowledge that in 1888 London, forensic medicine was still in its nascent stages. Although Marcelo Malpighi first observed the ridges, loops, and spirals of fingerprints in 1686, it was not until 1888 that Sir Francis Galton published the first book on fingerprints, and 1901 that Sir Edward Henry developed the Henry Classification System, which formed the basis for the modern science of fingerprinting.4 Karl Landsteiner discovered the A, B, and O blood groups in 1901, resulting in the first successful blood transfusion in 1907 and a Nobel Prize for his work in 1930.5 Crime investigation in London in the late 1800s was rudimentary and bereft of any scientific underpinning. Many murders of the era, like the Whitechapel murders, remained unsolved.

Many suspects have been identified throughout the years, but there are several candidates that are the most notable and provocative.


Montague Druitt

Druitt was mentioned as a likely suspect from the outset. The son of a physician, he studied at Winchester College and the University of Oxford. He pursued parallel careers as a teacher at a boarding school and as a barrister, and was also an accomplished cricket player.6 In November 1888 he was dismissed from his position at the boarding school for unclear reasons. A month later his body was found in the River Thames and his death ruled a suicide. Soon after the death of the fifth victim, Mary Jane Kelly, rumors began to circulate that Jack the Ripper was the son of a surgeon and had committed suicide. The innuendos continued for years and Sir John Moylan, Assistant Under-Secretary of the Home Office, said subsequently, “the Ripper escaped justice by committing suicide at the end of 1888.” However, no clear motive for Druitt was ever uncovered and all of the evidence against him was circumstantial. Important issues have never been clarified. What were the circumstances surrounding his dismissal from the faculty of the boarding school? Did Moylan and others in Scotland Yard have evidence regarding Druitt that would have been made public and was only withheld because of Druitt’s suicide? The answers to these questions have never been revealed.


Figure 2. Sir Randolph Churchill

The Royal Ripper and Sir Randolph

Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, was known as “Prince Eddy” throughout his life. Eddy was the eldest son of Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales who would later become King Edward VII. Eddy was partially deaf and of limited intelligence. In 1883 his mother, Princess Alexandra, introduced him to a young painter, Walter Sickert, in hopes of exposing Eddy to the art and theatrical world of London. While working in Sickert’s studio, Eddy met a young Catholic commoner of Irish descent named Annie Elizabeth Crook who became pregnant with his child. He married her in a clandestine ceremony. This eliminated him from any possible succession to the throne.

The relationship between Eddy and Crooks became increasingly problematic and Sickert was asked to find a suitable young woman who could serve as a nursemaid for the child. Sickert found a young woman, Mary Jean Kelly, to serve in that role. She came from a very humble background and worked some evenings as a prostitute to supplement her meager income. The monarchy was upset with this whole arrangement and set a cover up plan in motion. Crooks was forcefully taken to Guy’s Hospital where Sir William Gull, the Queen’s personal physician, performed a partial frontal lobotomy on her, rendering her docile and compliant. She spent the remainder of her life in a variety of institutions.7

In the meantime, Kelly and several of her prostitute friends formed a plan of blackmail in return to keep the whole affair quiet. When Sickert became aware of this, he informed the monarchy and it was decided the only solution was to silence Kelly and her friends. The monarchy directed murders to be carried out by Sickert, Sir William Gull, and a coachman, John Netley. The monarchy arranged for Sir Randolph Churchill, the father of Winston Churchill, to be the ringleader and to coordinate the murders.7 (Figure 2)

This convoluted story is pure speculation. However, it has been recounted enough to cause many “Ripperologists” to give credence to it. It continues to be one of the possible explanations for the Whitechapel murders.


Doc the Ripper

Early on, suspicions arose that because of the apparent anatomical precision of the murders, that a physician was the culprit. There have been several physician suspects considered through the years.

Thomas Neill Cream was born in Glasgow in 1850, raised in Quebec City, and received an MD from McGill in 1876. Upon graduation he moved to Chicago, where his practice consisted mainly of offering illegal abortions to prostitutes.8 Cream traveled to London in 1891 to collect the inheritance left to him by his father who had died in 1887. In 1892, he was charged and convicted of the poisoning of several prostitutes with strychnine and was sentenced to death by hanging. When he was hanged on November 15, 1892, his last words were reported to be, “I am Jack the Ripper.”8 Although there is no evidence to place Cream in London in 1888, this confession has placed him among the Ripper suspects.

The second physician implicated in the Ripper murders was Sir John Williams. Williams was Welsh and attended Queen Victoria, who raised him to baronetcy in 1894.9 He completed his medical training at the University College Hospital in London and was an obstetric surgeon who served as a private doctor to the royal family. He married Mary Hughes in 1872, but the union produced no children. His possible involvement in the Whitehall murders appeared in the 2005 book Uncle Jack, written by one of his supposed descendants, Tony (Michael Anthony) Williams, and co-authored with Humphrey Price.10 These authors claim that David Williams knew all the victims and murdered them in an attempt to solve his wife’s apparent infertility.10,11 These claims remain unsubstantiated by other authors or investigators.

An intriguing suspect is Doctor Robert D’Onston-Stephenson. He was born in Yorkshire in 1841 and claimed to have medical degrees based on studies in France and the United States. He had always been fascinated by occult science and came to be familiar with the practices of the “forbidden art” of Black Magic.12 At the time of the Ripper murders, D’Onston-Stephenson was living in the Whitechapel area. He had developed a serious drinking problem and on July 26, 1888 booked himself as a private patient at the London Hospital in Whitechapel. The arrangement provided that he could leave the hospital ad libitum. The hospital was contiguous to the area where the Ripper murders were carried out. What adds to this intrigue is that D’Onston-Stephenson wrote an article in a local paper on December 1 titled, “Who Is The Whitechapel Demon? (By One Who Thinks He Knows).”

Upon finally leaving the hospital, D’Onston-Stephenson met George Marsh, an amateur detective who was trying to solve the Ripper murders. The doctor displayed a disconcerting knowledge of the facts and details of the murders. However, he was never charged with any of the crimes. It has been suggested that his interest in the occult may have provided a motive for the murders, as some ministrations of the occult call for “portions of a harlot.”12 However, D’Onston-Stephenson continued to battle alcoholism throughout his life and died in the Ingleton Infirmary in 1916 without any direct proof that he was the “Ripper.”


Jill the Ripper

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, speculated that the murderer may have been a female posing as a midwife, which would serve as an alibi for any blood seen on her clothing.13,14 A female suspect, Mary Pearcey, would later be convicted and hanged in 1890 for an unrelated murder. There is no material evidence to directly link her to the Whitechapel crimes.

In 2006 Ian Findlay, a professor of molecular and forensic diagnostics, reported that he had developed a new technique that could extract DNA from a single cell or strand of hair up to 160 years old. He claimed to have identified “female DNA” from saliva on the letters that supposedly had been sent by Jack the Ripper to the police at the time of the murders.13,14 Of course, the authenticity of these letters has never been established and other forensic scientists have not verified Findlay’s results.

It would seem unlikely that Pearcey or a deranged midwife, or any other female, could have carried out these murders. The generally accepted belief that the murders commenced with strangulation from behind, followed by slashing of the throat and mutilation, stretches credulity that one woman could overpower another woman successfully on five occasions without a single survivor.


Aaron Kosminski: Forensic proof or faulty science?

Kosminski was a Polish immigrant who arrived in London sometime between 1880 and 1881.15 Kosminski worked intermittently as a barber and was often unemployed. He was one of the suspects considered by police because he “…had a great hatred of women…with strong homicidal tendencies.” He was questioned but never charged with any of the murders. He spent most of the latter part of his life in insane asylums before he died in 1919.16

Kosminski had largely been forgotten in relation to the Ripper murders until 2014 when author Russell Edwards claimed that DNA evidence from a shawl left at one of the murder scenes proved that Kosminski was the killer. Edwards, a Ripperologist, had purchased the shawl at an auction in Bury St. Edwards, Suffolk. The claim was that this shawl had been left at the scene of the murder of Catherine Eddowes.17 Edwards collaborated with Dr. Jori Louhelainen, an expert in historic DNA analysis. Louhelainen analyzed the DNA in the shawl and published his findings in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.18 He performed the analysis utilizing mitochondrial DNA. Louhelainen claimed that he identified dark splotches on the shawl presumed to be Eddowes’s blood and that of the murderer. He found the mitochondrial DNA from the shawl matched that taken from Karen Miller, a direct descendant of Eddowes, as well as a female descendant of Kosminski’s sister Matilda, who provided swabs of mitochondrial DNA from inside her mouth.19

However, the significance of these findings has been questioned. Hansi Weissensteiner, an expert in mitochondrial DNA, has offered that mitochondrial DNA can only exclude suspects.20 The blood DNA on the shawl could have come from thousands of individuals living in London at the time. In addition, the possibility of contamination of the shawl has not been ruled out, nor has there been verification that the shawl belonged to Eddowes.


Serial killers: Modern experience

It is easy to take a condescending view of the Metropolitan Police of London from over a century ago. As mentioned, however, forensic medicine was non-existent at that time. Most convictions depended on eye-witness accounts or confessions.

Even today, with all the genetic and molecular biology applications available, a surprising number of serial killers remain uncaptured. The FBI estimates that there are 25 to 50 serial killers active in the United States.21 One reason for this shortcoming is “linkage blindness,” where patterns of crimes are not recognized as related.22 This remains a problem despite the growing resource of criminal databanks.

The Jack the Ripper murders have remained a “cold case” for over 130 years. The entire subject is replete with confessions, conspiracies, and conjecture. Given the available remaining evidence, it is unlikely that any of the suspects would be convicted in a modern court of law. Jack the Ripper remains unidentified and will probably always remain so. Someone got away with murder!



  1. Rumbelow D. The Complete Jack the Ripper, Virgin Books, 1997, pg. 143.
  2. Rumbelow D. The Complete Jack the Ripper, pg. 146.
  3. Whitechapel Jack-The Ripper Letters. https://whitechapeljack.com/the-ripper-letters/ accessed 6/18/2019
  4. Lichanska A. Fingerprint Analysis. http://www.faqs.org/espionage/Ep-Fo/Fingerprint-Analysis.html. Accessed 6/18/2019
  5. Lixandru M. Karl Landsteiner and the Blood Groups. Nature Wod-Trustworthy  Health Information Resource. January 15, 2018. https://www.natureword.com/karl-landsteiner-and-the -blood-groups/ accessed 6/18/2019
  6. Montague Druitt. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montague_Druitt accessed 6/18/2019
  7. Hamer J. “Jack the Ripper” was Winston Churchill’s Father. https:/davidjamesboston/jack-ripper-winston-churchills-father/ accessed 6/14/2019
  8. Thomas Neill Cream. Wikipedia. Https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_neill_Cream. Accessed 6/18/2019
  9. John Williams. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sir_John_Williams_1st_Baronet_of_the_City_of_London accessed 6/18/2019
  10. Williams, Tony; Price, Humphrey 2005. Uncle Jack, London, Orion ISBN 978-0-7528-6708-3
  11. Rumbelow D. The Complete Jack the Ripper, pg. 258
  12. Rumbelow D. The Complete Jack the Ripper, pg. 258
  13. Bilowol J. DNA hints at Jill the Ripper, the Australian 5/17/16
  14. Mary Pearcey. Wikipedia. Https://wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Pearcey . Accessed 6/18/2019
  15. Aaron Kosminski-Jack the Ripper Suspect. www.jack-the-ripper.org/kosminski.htm accessed 6/10/2019
  16. Aaron Kosminski. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Kosminski. Accessed 6/24/2019
  17. Conner S. Jack the Ripper: Has notorious serial killer’s identity been revealed by new DNA evidence. The Independent 9/7/14. Accessed 6/14/2019
  18. Louhelainen J, Miller D. Forensic investigation of a shawl linked with “Jack the Ripper” murders. 3/12/2019. https://doi.org10,1111/1556-4029.14038
  19. Klein C. Has Jack the Ripper’s Identity Been Revealed? https://www.history.com/news/has-jack-the-rippers-identity-been-revealed. Accessed 3/5/2019
  20. Adam D. Does genetic analysis finally reveal the identity of Jack the Ripper? https://www.science.mag.org/news/2019/03/does-new-genetic-analysis-finally-reveal-identity-of-Jack-the-Ripper. Accessed 4/29/2019
  21. Moss G. How many U.S. serial killers were never caught? https://www.bustle.com/articles/113600-how-many-us-serial-killers-were-never-caught. Accessed 2/26/2019
  22. Pappas S. How many uncaptured serial killers are out there? https://www.livescience.com/62431-how-many-serial-killers-free.html. Accessed 2/26/2019



KEVIN R. LOUGHLIN, MD, MBA, is a Professor Emeritus at Harvard Medical School. He is a retired urologic surgeon. He is a former trustee of the American Board of Urology.


Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 11, Issue 4 – Fall 2019

Summer 2019  |  Sections  |  History Essays

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