In 1910, the poor Jews of London’s East End began to collect funds to erect the Edward VII Memorial Drinking Fountain in Whitechapel Road in honor of the reigning monarch, the son of Queen Victoria. At around the same time, Sir Robert Anderson, former head of Metropolitan Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) at the time of the murders, claimed in his memoirs that it was a “definitely ascertained fact” that the Whitechapel Murderer was a poor Polish Jew, and he indicated that the suspect’s family had protected the man from “Gentile justice”. The man Anderson apparently meant, according to a marginal notation left by retired Detective Superintendent Donald S. Swanson was Aaron Kosminski, a deranged Polish-born Jewish barber. Other police officials maintained that “Jack the Ripper” was never positively identified, and Anderson’s claim remains controversial to this day. Some Ripperologists believe Anderson held the answer to the mystery that has persisted for the last 123 years. But, did he?
Edward VII Memorial Drinking Fountain, Whitechapel Road, funded by subscriptions raised by poor East End Jews. Photograph courtesy of John Bennett.
What are the true facts? Is it possible that a Jew could have been the killer? Could Jews really have protected the killer and refused to identify the man as the killer as Anderson claimed? A number of East End Jews were suspects who were taken in to be questioned but were later released. An early suspect in the murders was a man named “Leather Apron” who was allegedly terrorizing local prostitutes. In September 1888, a Jew named John Pizer was arrested on suspicion of being Leather Apron, but he had to be let go when it was proved that he had a solid alibi for the times of two of the murders.
Thousands of Jewish homes were visited during house-to-house enquiries in October 1888. A number of Jews were witnesses at the inquests into the murder victims, particularly in the cases of second canonical victim Annie Chapman, killed and disembowelled in the squalid back yard at 29 Hanbury Street on 8 September, and that of third canonical victim Elizabeth Stride, her throat in Dutfield’s Yard beside a mostly Jewish socialist club in Berner Street early on 30 September. Although Liz Stride had her throat cut from ear to ear in the same manner as the other canonical victims she was otherwise not mutilated, the traditional explanation being that the killer was disturbed by the arrival of a Jewish man who arrived with pony and cart.
Could the man who so cruelly despatched those women—the prostitutes or “unfortunates” of the East End, the man known by the infamous name of Jack the Ripper, have been a Jew? And even if the killer was not a Jew, what was the exact role of the Jews in the case?
In early medieval times, Jews lived in the area now known as London’s East End. The street called “Old Jewry” is a reminder of this presence of Jews in the vicinity until their expulsion from England in 1290 during the reign of Edward I. With the return of Jews to Britain in the seventeenth century, Dutch and German Ashkenazi Jews established synagogues outside the gates of the City of London. Sephardic Jews established the Bevis Mark Synagogue off Bury Street, and it remains to this day an architectural gem well worth a visit.
Bevis Marks Synagogue, Whitechapel. Photograph courtesy of John Bennett.
The Great Synagogue in Duke Street, Aldgate, was founded in 1690. Heavily damaged in 1940 by the German bombing during the Second World War, the building was subsequently demolished. The Great Synagogue plays a part in our story because fourth canonical victim Catherine Eddowes was murdered in the early morning hours of 30 September 1888 in Mitre Square behind this Jewish house of worship.
By 1888, the East End was home to many immigrant groups including Irish, Germans, and Eastern European Jews. The largest influx of Jews would occur with a surge of immigration of Eastern European Jews in the late nineteenth century. While wealthier “Anglicised” Jews moved to the prosperous suburbs, Yiddish-speaking poor Jews, some 150,000 of them, flooded into the East End of London during 1881–1914 after many of them fled Eastern Europe following Tsarist progroms in Russia and Poland. While some of the newcomers only stayed a short time before moving on to other countries, particularly to the United States, thousands remained in the area. The Yiddish speakers crowded into local tenements and caused concerns to the authorities, both the British Government and local authorities as well as to the Jewish Board of Guardians because of the fear of rising disease and crime rates.
Indeed, the influx of poor new Jews panicked as well as helped mobilise the Anglo-Jewish establishment of the day, largely made up of the descendants of Jews who had settled in Britain since the seventeenth century. The Jewish establishment wanted to solve the problem. This was, it might be said, partly a self-protective gesture, since in the face of Gentile prejudice and Government pressure, the richer Jews did not want to be seen as part of the problem but wanted to be reactive to it. Lord Rothschild, one of richest British Jews of the day, wrote: “We have now a new Poland on our hands in East London. Our first business is to humanise our Jewish immigrants and then to Anglicise them. . . .” One part of the solution, facilitated by Lord Rothschild, was the founding of the Poor Jews Temporary Shelter at 84 Leman Street to help provide shelter, clothe, and educate the new immigrants, find them housing, and, in some instances, move them on to other countries.
It was in the immigrant working class streets of the largely Jewish East End in an area that constituted barely a square mile that at least five women, or—if you can believe the press of the day—some eleven women were slaughtered by the same hand—that of the mysterious murderer known as “Jack the Ripper”.
Particularly on the night of the so-called “Double Event”, 30 September 1888, with the murders of the third and fourth canonical victims, Stride and Eddowes, aspects of the case converged to create a series of Jewish links to the murders. Do these links indicate a real connection between the crimes and the Jews of the East End or are they only coincidental links that remain intriguing even if they tell us nothing about the reason for the murders? Jim Leen has written:
The third canonical victim, Stride, was murdered at around 12:55 AM on 30 September 1888 in Dutfield’s Yard, in Berner Street, at the side of a socialist club frequented by Jewish men. Was the killer making a statement of some kind by killing Ms. Stride at that location? Stride was a Gentile born in Sweden as Elizabeth Gustafsdotter who happened to speak Yiddish. Her ability to speak Yiddish might indicate that some of her clients were Jewish, and could also explain her presence close to the club.
A Hungarian Jew named Israel Schwartz said he saw a man to accost her (either Jack the Ripper or another man before the fatal murderous attack). A man shouted out to him, “Lipski!” and Schwartz fled the scene. It appears that the term “Lipski” was a common pejorative term used in the area for semitic looking people, the slur coming from the name of Israel Lipski, an umbrella maker who lived in nearby Batty Street in 1887 and who had poisoned his landlady Miriam Angel, a crime for which he was hanged after much controversy in the press and as well as mob scenes on the streets of the East End.
About an hour and a half after the Berner Street murder a second murder occurred, this time in Mitre Square, Aldgate. The victim was Catherine Eddowes, yet another prostitute or “unfortunate”. The murder occurred not far from a then notorious location—St. Botolphe’s Church, where prostitutes traditionally circled the church touting for business.
Eddowes was killed behind the Great Synagogue. She was last seen alive talking to a man in a passage leading to the square. This according to the testimony of three Jewish men who were leaving the Imperial Club, a Jewish men’s club, at 16–17 Duke’s Place at around 1:30 AM in the morning.
The three men, Joseph Lawende, Joseph Hyam Levy, and Harry Harris, saw the couple at the entrance to covered Church Passage that ran down the east side of the synagogue and led to the secluded square. Questions linger as to whether the men told the police all they knew about the man they saw and whether any one of the three recognized him. Lawende is thought to have been asked by the police later to identify a suspect at the Seaside Home in the scenario described by Sir Robert Anderson and may have refused to do so, if we believe the story told by Anderson.
Soon after the Eddowes murder, at around 2:55 A.M., a chalk inscription was found in a doorway in Goulston Street by Metropolitan Police Constable Alfred Long 254A. The inscription was on the painted brickwork inside a doorway leading to Wentworth Model Dwellings, a tenement known to be home to immigrant Jews.
Although we cannot be certain that the so-called Goulston Street Graffito was written by the murderer, a bloodied piece of white apron that had belonged to Eddowes was found below the writing, which has strongly suggested to many students of the case that the inscription was also left by the killer. Nonetheless, the graffito remains one of the most controversial and exasperating parts of the puzzle known as the Whitechapel Murders.
First and foremost, the wording, written in one-inch high lettering in five lines with odd and unconventional capitalisation, was ambiguously worded:
The writing presents us with a conundrum. Was the writer somehow blaming the Jews for the murders? Or was he saying that the Jews should not be blamed? It’s the double negative that is to be blamed, my friends. And a double negative, we might note, is typical of Cockney speech. Such a phrase or grammatical tick, if you will, would not be a typical speech pattern, one should think, for a recent Polish or other Eastern European Jewish immigrant whose English language skills and knowledge of Cockney dialect might be limited.
Famously, exponents of the Royal or Masonic conspiracy theory such as Stephen Knight in his Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976) have argued by contrast that the reference was not to the Jews at all but to the “Juwes” (builders of Solomon’s Temple, supposedly something that in 1888 was a part of masonic tradition known to practising English freemasons. According to the Royal Conspiracy advocates, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren, being, as some writers claim, a high and active freemason immediately recognized the masonic reference to “Juwes” and ordered the graffito removed for that reason. This theory seems a bit too convenient for the theorists, and may be less persuasive than that the writing, written in a Jewish neighborhood, really did refer to the Jews.
Let’s put our cards on the table here, friends. The idea that the Ripper was a madman—whether a Jewish lunatic or not—is rather an old-fashioned notion, even if it was one favored by the police who were doing their best to apprehend the killer. We now know that serial killers are cold and calculating and usually don’t outwardly appear mad. American serial killers Ted Bundy, Dennis L. Rader (the BTK Killer), and Gary L. Ridgway (the Green River Killer), were respectively, a suave and handsome much-travelled lover (killing as he went), an efficient if coldly officious community enforcer who enjoyed mentally torturing the good citizens around Wichita, Kansas, and a seemingly innocuous working class house painter in the rainy Pacific northwest. All three men, seemingly respectable by day, led secret lives as vicious sexual serial killers but no one knew it except the men themselves and, ultimately, their victims. They each operated for years, slaughtering women seemingly at will. None of the three could remotely be viewed as a foaming-at-the-mouth killer, and yet the latter, from the writings left by the police of 1888, appears to be what the police of the day were seeking.
This rhyme, with its anti-Semitic reference at the end of the opening line, was evidently written in a now-lost “Jack the Ripper” letter. It is cited by former Scotland Yard Chief Constable Sir Melville Macnaghten in his autobiography The Days of My Years (1914). In this memoir, Macnaghten told his readers that information came into his hands years after the Autumn of Terror to showing that the killer was an unbalanced “doctor”. He was referring to Montague John Druitt. The man was a barrister and part-time schoolteacher at a boys’ school in Blackheath. He was the son of a Dorset surgeon but not himself a trained doctor. Druitt committed suicide by drowning himself in the Thames. Although Macnaghten is correct that Druitt died after the murder and mutilation of Mary Jane Kelly on 9 November 1888, the suicide was not until the end of November, three weeks after the Kelly murder.
What is the real answer to the identity of Jack the Ripper? Was Sir Robert Anderson correct that the Ripper was a Jew or did Sir Melville Macnaghten have the answer that the killer was a Gentile and the son of a doctor? While a local Jew would have the knowledge of back streets to enable him to escape the police dragnet, there is no compelling evidence that we know about today that the killer was in fact a Jew.
It has been suggested by some that the murderer could have been either a shochet, i,e., a Jewish ritual slaughterman, or a Jewish butcher. It amuses me that people in such professions—whether Jews or not—are put forward as candidates for Jack the Ripper. Where’s the thrill to murder and mutilate if your day job is to cut up corpses? The same thing might be said of doctors. The saving grace though for the Jews of 1888 is that there were not many Jewish doctors in Victorian England. No, a better candidate might be, say, a Jewish shoemaker or leather worker, who while he cuts up leather, might be hankering all day to cut into real live warm flesh.
The puzzle of whether the Whitechapel Murderer was a Jew yields no ready answer.