Even in squalid Victorian London, the notorious and still unidentified serial killer stood out with his surgical murders of prostitutes. Was the pathological stalker a royal?

‘Jack the Ripper’ is one of the most enduring and famous serial killer legends that still captivates the world’s imagination.

The culprit responsible for slaughtering five prostitutes, and possibly more, in London’s East End in the autumn of 1888 was never apprehended. Despite countless investigations which claim to have definitive evidence of the killer’s identity, the brutal murderer’s name and motivation are still unproven.

The moniker ‘Jack the Ripper’ originates from a letter written by someone who claimed to be the Whitechapel butcher, which was published at the time of the attacks. The killings all took place within a mile of each other, and involved the districts of Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Aldgate and the City of London.

Adding to the mystery of the affair is the fact that several letters were sent by the killer to the London Metropolitan police, taunting them about his gruesome activities and speculating on further murders to come. The plethora of theories as to the identity of the killer, ranging from the famous Victorian painter Walter Sickert to a Polish migrant and even the grandson of Queen Victoria have all contributed to a culture of folklore and ghoulish entertainment.

The East End district was a place that was viewed by respectable London society with either compassion or utter contempt. Despite being an area where skilled immigrants, mainly Jews and Russians, came to start a new life and build up businesses, the district was also notorious for squalor, violence and crime. Prostitution was only illegal if the practice caused a public disturbance, and during the late 19th century thousands of brothels and low rent lodging houses provided sexual services.

In the 19th century, the death or murder of a working girl was rarely reported in the press or discussed within polite society. The reality was that countless ‘ladies of the night’ were subjected to violent attacks, which in some cases resulted in their deaths. A typical example was a prostitute named Emma Smith, who was violently assaulted by four men and raped with an object. Smith died of peritonitis. She was one of many unfortunate victims who were killed by gangs demanding protection money.

However, it was the series of Ripper killings in August 1888 that stood out from anything that had gone before. They were marked by a sadistic butchery that suggested a mind so sociopathic and hateful of women that was difficult for sane people to comprehend. For Jack the Ripper didn’t just snuff out life with a knife, he mutilated and humiliated womanhood. It was as if his actions were aimed at all women, irrespective of their class, education or occupation.

The fact that the murders suddenly stopped without the culprit having been apprehended has reinforced the mythology of Jack The Ripper and spawned an industry of books, films, TV series and historical tours dedicated to one of the most sickening episodes of serial murders in criminal history.