Many theories exist about the identity of Jack the Ripper. The most plausible theories name ordinary civilians as possible suspects, such as Joseph Barnett, a fish porter, and George Hutchinson, an unemployed laborer. Other theories are bit more far-fetched in their range of possible subjects, such as Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Sir William Withey Gull, the physician-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria. However, quite possibly the strangest theory is that Jack the Ripper was a woman.
But, before I delve into the possibility of a female Ripper, allow me to give you a little background information on arguably the most famous serial killer in recorded history. Jack the Ripper stalked the slums of Whitechapel, London for his victims—female prostitutes. He slit the throats of his victims and mutilated their bodies, removing internal organs from at least three poor women. This indicates that Jack the Ripper had knowledge of human anatomy, which provides a clue as to his—or her—identity.
Now, Jack the Ripper was active between 1888 to 1891, presumably, in what is called the Whitechapel Murders. Estimates vary on the number of his/her victims. Many sources cite five women, called the “canonical five,” but files on the Whitechapel Murders includes eleven.
Rumors about the murders being connected increased through October of 1888, when press outlets and Scotland Yard, a historical equivalent to today’s police force, received letters from the supposed murderer. One of the letters, often referred to as the “Hell” letter, was sent to George Lusk, the head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, a group of local volunteers who patrolled the streets of Whitechapel. This letter included a chunk of a human kidney. This sensational display fanned the public mind and molded the beginnings of the legendary name “Jack the Ripper.”
Newspapers gave wide coverage to the murders as it happened. Police investigation looked into as many as eleven murders, but not all can be connected or attributed to one particular killer. Five victims conclusively link back to one killer. Circling back to the “canonical five,” these victims include Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.
Any true crime junkie, especially those that love historical murders (raises hand slightly), knows that Jack the Ripper was never caught. Those theories that I mentioned at the start of the article are all we are left within trying to figure out his—or her—identity. Most frustratingly, we will never know. We are only left with suppositions from Scotland Yard, journalists, and authors contemporary to Victorian London. We are also left with theories from modern day authors and couch detectives. One of these more interesting theories asks: “Was Jack the Ripper a woman?”
Back in the early 2000’s, an Australian scientist took swabs from those letters sent to Scotland Yard and press outlets by Jack the Ripper. You know, those letters that captured the attention of newspapers and created quite a bit of fanfare? Those swabs were tested for a DNA profile, which revealed an interesting discovery. Those samples revealed that those letters were likely sent by a woman!
Yes, a woman. I repeat, a woman.
And, this might not be so crazy. Original investigators into the crime had four suspects, all of whom were male. However, even the chief inspector began to consider a female killer when a witness familiar with the victim, Caroline Maxwell, claimed that she saw the fifth victim, Mary Kelly, hours after she was murdered. Maxwell swore she saw Kelly outside the Britannia public house, stumbling about and severely drunk. She said Kelly was wearing, “a dark shirt, velvet bodice, and maroon-coloured shawl.” Maxwell identified this as clothing she’d seen Kelly wear a handful of times before. And this, I remind you, was hours after the victim’s death. The chief inspector surmised this was the female killer parading about in Mary Kelly’s clothes.
Later theories also note that a midwife would have knowledge of human anatomy, which was a possible clue mentioned earlier in this article. One of the most likely female suspects was Mary Pearcey, who was hanged in 1890 for the murder of her lover’s wife and child. These two unfortunate victims were killed in a manner similar to the modus operandi (MO) of the Ripper.
Related links and sources:
- Buist, Erica. “Jack the Ripper: Five Unlikely Suspects Other than Aaron Kosminski.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 8 Sept. 2014, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/shortcuts/2014/sep/08/jack-the-ripper-five-unlikely-suspects-other-than-aaron-kosminski.
- Casebook: Jack the Ripper – Jack the Ripper: A Suspect Guide – Mary Eleanor Wheeler Pearcey, casebook.org/ripper_media/book_reviews/non-fiction/cjmorley/144.html.
- 5 Craziest Jack the Ripper Theories.” BBC America, www.bbcamerica.com/shows/ripper-street/blog/2013/01/the-5-craziest-jack-the-ripper-theories.
- History.com Staff. “Was Jack the Ripper a Woman?” History Channel, History Channel, 15 Aug. 2012, www.history.com/news/ask-history/was-jack-the-ripper-a-woman.
- Morris, John. Jack the Ripper: the Hand of a Woman. Seren, 2012.
Kat Devitt’s short stories have appeared in Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, TWJ Magazine, Squawk Back, Bold + Italic, Ariel Chart, The Blotter Magazine, and other venues. Kat is a Puschart Prize nominee, Best of the Net nominee, and placed as a runner-up in OPQ Press’s 2019 Spooky Samhain Contest. She also acts as the fiction editor for Bold + Italic.
When Kat isn’t writing a new short story or laboring on the first draft of her novel, she enjoys tripping over her feet in a Zumba class, searching the web for GoT fan theories, and perusing the wares of used bookstores. Please check out her published short stories and The Enduring Writer’s Blog.