SLEIGHT OF MIND was originally written as a series of opinion columns for the website Weaponizer. This was the third installment of that column.
In the autumn of 1888, Jack The Ripper brutally murdered five women in the east end of London. It is a murder spree that remains officially unsolved to this day. Over the past hundred and twenty plus years, literally hundreds of theories about the crimes have been proposed. I believe them all to be wrong and I also believe I have uncovered the identity of the killer. I’m going to share my thoughts on the subject with you now.
First, let’s set the stage. The east end of London was one of the most extreme examples of squalid poverty imaginable. Vastly overpopulated, with a high percentage of immigrant families, many of them Russian Jews fleeing oppression, and an even higher percentage of unemployment. The filthy tenement houses of Whitechapel were a fertile breeding ground for crime and horror.
As is often the case in such environments, anti-authoritarian political organizations thrived. Socialist, Labour, Democratic, however they chose to label themselves, in scare tactics familiar to anyone who pays attention to modern politics, the opposition lumped them all in with what they considered to be the most frightening of the bunch, the anarchists.
In November of 1887, the Social Democratic Federation, in partnership with several other radical, left-leaning groups, organized a protest against Irish coercion in Trafalgar Square. The protest turned into a bloodbath when Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren sent 5000 officers and troops to quell the protest. The resulting riot killed three and sent two hundred more to the hospital.
The radicals blamed Warren and were determined to see him removed from his position. Other protests followed and the police response was much the same. Tensions between the police and the population of the east end grew. It was a powder keg, waiting for the match to be lit. That match was Polly Nichols.
Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols’ body was discovered in the early hours of the morning on the 31st of August, 1888. Her throat was severed down to the vertebrae and several other incisions had been made to the abdomen.
It’s instructive at this point to watch the response of the local press. For the first day or so after the murder, the story is everything. Huge headlines and lengthy reports sensationalize the crime. But the murder of a prostitute in the east end is not so uncommon an occurrence and by the end of the week the story is reduced to a couple of paragraphs reporting that no progress has been made.
Annie Chapman’s body was discovered at 6:00AM on the morning of September 8th. Like Polly, her throat was cut to the bone, however her other injuries were much more severe. Her intestines were removed and left on her shoulder, her uterus cut out and taken away.
The press, of course, went ballistic, but it’s important to note that the killings were being referred to as The Whitechapel Murders and were even being lumped in with several previous killings, not in a way that implied they were all committed by the same man, but that they were all symptomatic of the poverty and crime of the east end, a sociological problem. A political problem. No mention was yet made of the name Jack The Ripper.
As with everything, the press eventually tired of the case and by the end of September the coverage had gone from the sensational to the mundane, with the press reporting matter-of-factly on the findings of the inquest.
Shortly after 1:00AM on September 30th, the body of Elizabeth Stride was discovered in Dutfield’s Yard by Louis Diemschutz. Her throat was severed much like the two victim’s before her, but that was all. It appears that Diemschutz’s arrival interrupted the killer’s work.
A mere forty-five minutes later, the body of Catherine Eddowes was found in Mitre Square, throat cut and mutilated much like Annie Chapman. In addition to the uterus, a kidney was also removed and taken away.
The following day the police released to the press a letter they believed to be a fake, mostly to cover all possibilities. The letter (known as the “Dear Boss” letter) was signed “yours truly, Jack The Ripper”. Although it was probably authored by a member of the press in order to amp up the story, this letter coined the killer’s name.
The coverage in the papers exploded again following the double murder and the release of the letter. Much was made about the inability of the police to solve the crimes and they were often accused of not caring about the killings because the victims were only prostitutes.
Other letters came soon after, one by the same hand that crafted the “Dear Boss” letter, another that may well have been from the killer himself and contained a segment of human kidney. All served to amplify the furor in the press, much of which was directed at Police Commissioner Warren.
It was more than a month before things began to drop off and during that time there were no more Ripper killings. Then, on the morning of November 9th, Mary Kelly’s body is discovered in her flat in Spitalfields. Her throat is slashed and her body mutilated almost beyond recognition. This time, her heart is taken.
Later that day, Sir Charles Warren resigned his post as Commissioner of Police.
Jack The Ripper never killed again.
Those are the bare bone facts of the case. Many more details are known, books can and have been filled with details on this case, from the letters written to the press to the graffiti found on the wall near Catherine Eddowes body. The vast majority of those details, like the vast majority of the details in any homicide case, lead nowhere.
We do get several descriptions from witnesses of men that the victims were seen speaking to shortly before their deaths. As is often the case with witnesses, descriptions vary wildly, but we do get a strong inclination that the man was foreign.
However, the two most important details, or patterns, can be found in the paragraphs above. Oddly, in almost every theory of the Ripper case, they are ignored, which is why I believe every theory of the Ripper case is wrong. They all start with the same conclusion, that the Ripper was what we refer to now as a traditional serial killer and that the killings were sexually motivated.
That conclusion is erroneous.
Sexually motivated serial killers have a fairly common characteristic. Escalation. The time between murders gets shorter and shorter because the killer can’t control his impulses, he always needs more.
Look at those dates. Eight days between the first two. Twenty-two days between the next. Forty days between those and the final. It’s the opposite of what would be expected.
Why the lengthening dates? Look at the press coverage at the time and you start to get an idea. After the first, each subsequent killing happens as the coverage is starting to drop off. The more victims added to the list, the longer the coverage lasts, so you get a longer period between killings.
So, now we have a killer who isn’t sexually motivated and seems to be pushing for attention. The press coverage is drawing attention to the living conditions in the east end and it’s making the police look ineffectual. More importantly, it’s making them look like they don’t care.
So, a killer with a political motive, probably, considering the proliferation of such groups in the east end, a social radical. From the killings we can assume he had some medical knowledge or training. Not necessarily a doctor, but at least an educated man, someone who took a class or two in anatomy and such. From witness statements, a man believed to be a foreigner.
Now, let’s make an educated guess. He’s not one of the poor Russian Jews that are so abundant in Whitechapel. They wouldn’t have the necessary medical knowledge, they were mostly tailors or merchants. However, many well-to-do Russian anarchists also fled Russia following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, because of a crackdown on various socialist groups.
Educated men, many of whom ended up in London and naturally gravitated to the hot bed of socialism and anarchism, the east end. Whitechapel.
So, a well-educated Russian anarchist.
That’s a fairly specific profile and, to be honest, that’s as far as I expected this column to get. You see, none of the conventional Ripper suspects come close to fitting that description. But as I dug deeper, I went back to the original suspects, the people that Scotland Yard was looking at back during the time of the murders themselves.
Which is where I came across the name Nikolay Vasiliev.
At first, I dismissed him out of hand. Although he was Russian and educated in Odessa, the early rumors (and the reason the police were looking at him) placed him in a weird religious cult that castrated themselves and despised sexuality in any form. That made sense to the detectives, but not to me, not with the profile that I had devised.
Then I got to a report from a newspaper in St. Petersburg. That report dismissed the rumors about the cult and instead pegged him as an Anarchist.
Now, it’s hard to nail this guy down. Apparently the cops didn’t consider him for long and when you start to dig for evidence the man appears to be made of smoke. There’s little to prove that the man even existed outside of the numerous reports of his name in the contemporary papers.
It’s easy to see why the police dismissed him from consideration. They were looking for a madman driven by some form of sexual rage. I have no doubts that Vasiliev was mad, but what drove him was not a hatred of prostitutes, but a hatred of government, of the powers-that-be, of the authoritarian state that drove him from his home, and of the figure that represented that same form of authority here in his new home. The man who had ordered 5000 men to brutally shut down a peaceful protest less than a year before.
Sir Charles Warren.
There’s no physical evidence to tie this up in a nice, neat package. After one hundred and twenty plus years, how could there be? I’m drawing conclusions and making intuitive leaps, I know that.
But what are the odds that, without ever having heard about the guy, sitting at my desk in 2012, I could draw up a profile of an educated Russian anarchist and then find an educated Russian anarchist among the early suspects?
Coincidence? No, that stretches credulity too far past the breaking point.
I have no doubt left in my mind. Nikolay Vasiliev was Jack The Ripper.
See you next time,
K. Patrick Glover