I went on David Charnick’s excellent The Ripper Enigma for the second time recently. In this walk, David does not set out to sensationalise the Jack the Ripper murders (the newspapers of the time did enough of that). What he does is to set the scene of life in that part of Victorian London, and explains why the victims were vulnerable. It is an excellent tour and I recommend it to anyone who has any interest in social history, or just an interest in history, in fact. Check out David’s website for more details:
It is no secret that the police of the day were baffled. Yes, there were a lot of arrests but all of the suspects were released without charge. To this day, there are numerous theories abounding, but no-one knows who Jack the Ripper was, nor why s/he stopped so suddenly. And we probably never will.
All this got me wondering though, what would happen if there were to be another Jack the Ripper phenomenon today. Would the police fare any better? Let’s look at the facts.
Definition of a Serial Killer
Or, probably, more correctly, a serial murderer. According to the FBI, serial killings are not new, and have been documented since the nineteenth century, although they are known to have occurred way before then. They are estimated to make up only 1% of all murders. (A not-very comforting thought that we might all want to remember is that most murders are committed by someone the victim knows…)
The FBI defines a serial murderer as someone who kills two or more victims, and the events in which those killings take place are separated by time. It also says that there may be more than one offender.
Although there is some dispute as to whether there were five, seven or even only four victims, I think we can agree that whoever s/he was, the Ripper was a serial killer, and, in all probability, acted alone. I say this because, from witness sightings, the victims were only seen with one person, a man. Not definitive proof, I know, and in those cases, where there was a time lag between the last sighting of the victim and the body being found, who knows what might have happened? However, on the balance of probability, it is likely to have been only one person. (I also know that the burden on proof in criminal cases is ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ but since this is not a trial, I’ll go with the lower standard.)
Why do I suggest that the Ripper might have been female? There are a couple of theories out there that suggest that Jack was actually Jill. One, that I read about many years ago, was that the killer was an abortionist whose work had gone wrong, so she made it look like murder so that they could stay in business. Personally, I don’t buy that. All but one of the Ripper killings took place outside and why would anyone have been performing abortions outside? Doesn’t make sense to me.
Another theory that David referred to was that the murderer was a woman who couldn’t have children. Most of the victims were professional prostitutes (as opposed to women who used prostitution as a casual means of supplementing their incomes). They would not have wanted children. A woman whose mind had become deranged because she was unable to give birth might have felt that these women deserved to die. To be honest, I don’t buy this theory either. Not because it isn’t possible, I just think that’s it unlikely a deranged woman would have been more chaotic in her behaviour.
Whether the Ripper left any DNA is anybody’s guess, but it is irrelevant, since the police in the 1800s did not have the benefit of DNA analysis. It was used for the first time in the UK in 1986, almost 100 years after the Ripper. If it were to happen today, the forensics team would check the victim’s body for fibres and hair (although hair is only of use if the root is still attached). They’d also check for semen and saliva. These would be useful if the police had a suspect, but they wouldn’t actually help catch the killer, unless the killer was already on the DNA database, in which case, happy days.
Fingerprints were around at the time, but they weren’t used by police until later. Nowadays, a crime scene would be routinely dusted for prints, but remember, all but one of these murders was committed outside. It depends on the actual materials from which the areas where the bodies were found, but t might be possible to obtain fingerprints from brick etc. Not so in the 1880s when techniques were still in their infancy.
The scene would also be check for footprints nowadays, which might be of use, depending on the type of shoe the killer wore – trainers are good for sole prints. However, the man with whom the victims were seen didn’t look as though he’d have been wearing trainers.
Crime Scene Contamination
If you watch any TV cop shows at all, particularly those made in the UK, you will see that the police and all the forensic staff all wear paper suits over their day clothes. They cordon off the area as soon as possible. They do this for the simple reason that they don’t want to contaminate the crime scene. The mantra in forensic investigation is Locard’s Exchange Principle – “Every contact leaves a trace.” What this means is that when two objects come into contact with each other, each will take something from the other, or leave something behind. Thus the paper suits, which are uncontaminated when they are first put in and will prevent fibres, pet hairs, and so on, from being left at the crime scene.
In the case of the Ripper murders, all the crime scenes were contaminated in some way. In the case of the first murder, when the first people on scene pulled down the skirt of Polly Nichols, they contaminated the scene. We don’t know how long the bodies were in situ prior to being found – plenty of time for scene contamination from any animals that might have been around. The point is, even today, this wouldn’t have been a great start for the police investigation.
The FBI now agrees that there is no generic profile for a serial murderer, which makes sense when you think that there is no generic profile of a human being. However, most serial killers are not social misfits who hide themselves away. They often have families, jobs and seem, to all intents and purposes, to be just like you and me. And often overlooked by the police for this reason.
Why did the killings stop?
Something else we will never know, maybe Jack himself was murdered? The FBI says that some serial killers stop killing before they are caught, and may never be caught. There are lots of reasons for this, including greater participation in family activities, but also maybe even just moving away.
Of course, if these killings took place today, the police would do the usual thing, set up a team, conduct house to house enquiries, and maybe, just maybe, there would have been more people around to have witnessed the crime, and possibly CCTV. They would learn early on that some of the victims knew each other and they’d do the usual background checks and they would interview everyone who had seen the women on the night in question. They would have create an e-fit of the suspect and it would be publicised in the press, television and probably social media. Crimewatch would be a great medium. They’d rely on someone coming forward with some information. They might get lucky. Or they might not. There are no guarantees.
© Susan Shirley 2017