All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1996

Jack the Radical

How Gruesome Murders Activated the Strangest Left-Wing Campaign of All Time

Mr. Segerdal resides in Glendale, California, where he is a writer.

In the late nineteenth century, despite fabulous wealth, gracious living, and an industrial revolution that had reached the far corners of her empire, Britain was also an island of social unrest. Working-class discontent with poverty and disease was fueling the rise of socialism, and new doctrines were calling for revolution and an end to the monarchy. Parliamentary controversy over the age-old “Irish Question” was bitter as rioting from the Emerald Isle spread to the not-so-United Kingdom. Its capital, London, was a city of great commerce, high fashion, and sophisticated culture—a city of wealthy gentlemen and gentle ladies, their children attended by nannies as they played in Hyde Park.

London was also a city of unfathomable poverty. Its East End housed nearly a million hungry and impoverished souls living in cramped filth. Although working conditions had improved in Britain since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, working-class discontent in London had been building up since the late 1870s. Inspired by Karl Marx, who lived and wrote in London, the growing voices of socialism were eager to boost this discontent, and by 1886 things turned violent. In early 1886, one of the coldest winters on record caused such hardship that, despite the subnormal temperatures, thousands of out-of-work men and women from the East End docks gathered in Trafalgar Square to hear violent speeches from eminent socialists. Meanwhile, thousands more protesters went on a rampage of property damage and looting as rioting spilled over into the residential environs of upper-class Mayfair and the upscale West End shopping districts of Oxford Street, Regent Street, and Piccadilly.

On November 13, 1887, Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year, a battle known as “Bloody Sunday” erupted in Trafalgar Square when 100,000 demonstrators, including George Bernard Shaw and the poet William Morris, fought with four thousand police constables. Three months later, another Trafalgar Square riot prompted Queen Victoria to write to the prime minister, William Gladstone: “The Queen cannot sufficiently express her indignation at the monstrous riot which took place the other day in London, and which risked people’s lives and was a momentary triumph of socialism and disgrace to the capital.”

London’s East End was vilified and ignored, yet despite the anger and disruption, Britons of all classes possessed an inbred distaste for revolutionary ideas designed to overthrow the established order. No matter how poor and impoverished, British working men and women cherished their freedom of speech and right of assembly. Continental-style government regimentation was anathema to this island race. Violence, when it did take place, was not seen by the Left as enhancing the road to reform. They realized that fear of the mob would never inspire the middle and upper classes to comprehend the plight of the poor. The socialist-minded and their brethren in the press knew that education via speeches and the written word was the only viable means of impingement. By 1888, London’s radical press, aware of its growing power to focus attention on the capital’s social problems, was constantly on the lookout for a new socio-political drama, preferably one guaranteed to increase circulation and vindicate their left-wing rhetoric. Little did their editorial offices know that before the year was out, a gruesome saga was to present them with the campaign opportunity of a lifetime.

It began as the hot English summer of 1888 drew to a close. Police Constable John Neil, a London policeman with badge number 97 and tired feet, trudged his night beat along Buck Row, a dirty little side street in Whitechapel in the East End of London. Most of the drunks, drifters, and ladies of the night had disappeared as dawn approached on this last day of August, and the only sound along Bucks Row was the slow, steady gait of Police Constable Neil. The assurance of a London bobby’s footsteps gave way to an eerie silence as he stumbled on the body of a woman. She had been murdered, but this was no ordinary killing. Mary Ann Nichols had been savagely disemboweled. Poor Annie Chapman met a similar fate on the night of September 8 and three weeks later, on the night of September 29-30, two more wretched souls, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were added to the chain of death, horribly mutilated and displaying similarities to the previous victims.

On October 1, the newspapers ran the story together with the complete text of two letters which had been posted to the London Central News Agency. Both were written in deep red ink and signed under a name that activated the strangest left-wing campaign of all time.

“Dear Boss”

The first letter was addressed to “The Boss, Central News Office, London City,” and opened with: “Dear Boss, I keep on hearing the police have caught me, but they won’t fix me just yet.” The text continues to boast and taunt, ending off with: “Keep this letter back till I do a bit more work, then give it out straight. My knife is nice and sharp. I want to get to work right away if I get a chance. Good luck. Yours truly, Jack the Ripper.” Part of a postscript read: “Don’t mind me giving the trade name.” The letter is well written and a careful study of words like “won’t” and capital letters after a period show proficiency in punctuation. The phrase “give it out straight,” an Americanism used by newsmen on both sides of the Atlantic, is the first hint that the writer might have been a journalist. Both letters used the word “Boss,” another Americanism familiar to those with close ties to the United States and the internationally minded London press, but not to the broad population and working classes of nineteenth-century England.

The second letter (sent as a postcard) was particularly daunting because it referred to the September 30 double murder in great detail, apparently before these details were fully known to the police and released to the press: “I was not codding [sic] dear old Boss when I gave you the tip. You’ll hear about Saucy Jacky’s work tomorrow. Double event this time. Number one squealed a bit. Couldn’t finish straight off. Had not time to get ears for police. Thanks for keeping last letter back till I got to work again. JACK THE RIPPER.” Once again, observe the correct punctuation as in “You’ll” and in the possessive “Jacky’s.” Note the capital S and J in “Saucy Jacky.” And note the clipped newspaper-style giveaway in “Had not time to get ears for police.” It was written in the same handwriting as the first letter, and because it recounted the contents of that letter, both were obviously penned by the same person. Yet details of these crimes were not publicly known until October 1, when newspapers published them. So, it was argued, both letters were not only from the same person (which was true), but must have come from the real killer.

What was not published was the fact that a barely visible “OC 1” postmark existed on the address of the second letter. (The postal service in Central London was very fast, and a letter mailed early in the morning was guaranteed delivery by lunch or early afternoon.) In other words, it was posted after details of the double murder were already in the newsrooms. It also suggests that the writer might have worked at the Central News Agency since the letters themselves were not handed around for other publishers to inspect physically, with the possible exception of the radical Star.

Furthermore, the function of the news agency was to deliver news items to newspapers and magazines who subscribed to its service (rather like today’s Associated Press), and it is highly unlikely that a serial killer in a working-class district would have known of this function, or even have heard of the agency. Like most serial killers, he would probably have written to one paper only, or taunted the police with notes which might never be made public. On the other hand, a journalist would understand that spicy information addressed to the news agency would generate maximum publicity. Once the name had appeared in print, hundreds of crank “Jack the Ripper” letters were sent to the press and police, and all were rejected as genuine with the possible exception of a note addressed to a Mr. George Lusk, the Marxist head of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. It was written “From Hell” and, interestingly, not signed with a Ripper signature, but simply as “Catch me when you can Mishter [sic] Lusk.”

More than any previous endeavor, creating the trade name “Jack the Ripper” forced a spotlight on London’s destitute and poor, and what a creation! Two of London’s top-selling radical newspapers, the Star and Pall Mall Gazette, realized that dramatizing the murders would focus the story directly towards the squalor of “Outcast London.” The first two murders had certainly generated publicity, and the next two murders, both on the same night, would normally have proven even more newsworthy, but publishing news of the “double event” with the macabre and threatening text of two “Jack the Ripper” letters was nothing short of masterful public relations. And it worked.

Within hours of the papers hitting the streets on October 1, 1888, Jack the Ripper—and the social conditions in which his victims lived—stole the show for months on end as a conversation piece. From the stately homes of the aristocracy down to bawdy working-class pubs; from London’s Alhambra Theater and Gaiety Music Halls to New York’s vaudeville, this unknown killer even spawned mirth over murder. Ripper-mania drifted far from the pathetic rat-infested hovels of Whitechapel and landed on page one of the world’s press. The day the double murder story was released in London, “Dismay in Whitechapel” headlines ran on the front page of the New York Times. Queen Victoria herself cultivated an unusual interest in what were more politely referred to as the “Whitechapel Murders,” and she demanded action. In an age when the Queen’s orders were dutifully obeyed, nothing happened. The Ripper was not apprehended, and Victoria was not amused.

A Vehicle for Socialist Propaganda

The “double event” now brought the total number of victims to four, and from this point on, the murders became an important vehicle for socialist propaganda, replacing homicide as the central issue. For instance, a petition with 5,000 signatures was sent to the Queen, but it didn’t mention the need to apprehend the killer. It dwelled instead on women “living sad and degraded lives” in the slums of Whitechapel. The Star in particular gave extensive coverage of the murders and unashamedly blamed them on “such economic systems as that of unrestricted competition, backed by the devil’s gospel of laissez-faire.” This London daily was well known for its biased socialist crusades, its inflexibility on “Home Rule” for Ireland, and its denunciation of Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren and his allegedly inept, heavy-handed police force.

The Star‘s large circulation covered a wide cross-section of readers, including those of a more conservative outlook, and this induced other less radical papers, who were also criticizing Warren, to echo the Star‘s rhetoric, albeit with less rebellious versions. The result was a multi-media push for both the Ripper’s arrest and an exposé of the environment in which he operated. Even the staid gentlemen of the Fourth Estate relished the Ripper saga when, almost by default, the highly respected Times of London drew attention to the social conditions where the killings took place. As for sensationalism, few could compete with either the Illustrated Police News or the Penny Illustrated Paper, as issue after issue ran lurid descriptions and artist sketches of the killings.

However, nothing surpassed the publicity that followed the murder of Mary Kelly, the fifth victim. Reports about “Another Whitechapel Horror, More Revolting Mutilation Than Ever” shocked the civilized world and prompted the Queen to telegram her prime minister: “This new most ghastly murder shows the absolute necessity for some very decided action.” Led by the socialists, press attacks on the harassed and despondent Sir Charles Warren became so intolerable that he was forced to resign as head of Scotland Yard. It so happened that the attractive Mary Kelly was the last of the Ripper murders, but this was not known at the time and Ripper fervor continued for months on end after her death.

A Radical Campaign?

That the brilliantly conceived “trade name” was part of a socialist campaign against the established social and economic order seems all the more likely when we inspect other aspects of this drama. For instance, Sir Melville Macnaughten, Assistant Chief Constable at Scotland Yard in 1889 (whose notes are the best known of all documents on the case) wrote in his memoirs: “In this ghastly production I have always thought I could discern the stained forefinger of the journalist—indeed, a year later I had shrewd suspicions as to the actual author! But whoever did pen the gruesome stuff, it is certain to my mind that it was not the mad miscreant who had committed the murders.” And in his book, The Lighter Side of My Official Life, Sir Robert Anderson, head of Scotland Yard’s Criminal Investigation Division during the investigation of the murders, commented specifically on the second letter when he wrote: “So I will only add here that the `Jack the Ripper’ letter which is preserved in the Police Museum at New Scotland Yard is the creation of an enterprising journalist.”

Quick to spot what was going on, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “Whilst we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation and organization, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand.” In a series of interviews with this writer, former police chief and pioneer of the FBI’s serial crime profiling unit, Pierce R. Brooks, said that, in his opinion, the two letters were almost certainly the work of someone in the media with a social axe to grind. (Brooks also felt that the “From Hell” note might have been genuine in view of the killer’s handwriting style, which displayed domination fantasies, cruelty, and inner rage.) One of today’s noted historians, Martin Fido, said that the murders became famous because the very first elections to the new London County Council were taking place, and the extreme leftists saw their chance of winning the East End—a tailor-made opening for the radicals.

Until 1888, unified administration of the rapidly growing areas beyond the old City of London was completely neglected. Known as Greater London, its population of five million was governed by a complexity of overlapping authorities and the result was administrative chaos. A long overdue solution to this dilemma was set in motion by the Local Government Act of 1888, for it not only created the London County Council, but established urban self-government throughout England. (The Council did not cover the ancient city itself—the financial district known to this day simply as “The City.”) At the time, left-wing proposals and convictions were more or less represented by the so-called “Progressives” who had very close ties with the Liberal Party and the emerging Labour Party. The Progressives were represented at council elections, but not at parliamentary elections, and although most voters in 1888 voted for Conservative Members of Parliament, many London conservatives were so keen on democratic reforms for their city that they voted Progressive in the Council elections. (It was in this spirit of “Progressive London” that the Fabian Society flourished.)

As for the radicals and socialists, their Jack-the-Ripper newspaper campaign worked like a dream. The Progressives won a 73-seat majority out of a total of 118 seats on the new council, including radical theosophist Annie Besant, who won a seat for the East End. In one Council election after another, the Progressives gained a majority of seats, and from its onset the new council burst into life and quickly introduced new programs involving welfare, sanitation, baths, education, and, to a lesser extent, housing. Their influence on the council also curtailed the operations of unrestricted laissez-faire.

In many ways, the Progressive Movement added an aura of “respectability” to the radical cause. Ominous revelations about urban conditions necessitated the involvement of the ruling classes, notably those with vast estates and holdings which were being leased out to meet the demands of urbanization. The newly assertive London County Council demanded and achieved a large increase in such leasehold enfranchisement, and, as the century drew to its close, more and more of the social elite found themselves in demand as urban celebrities. In fact, the London County Council was the prime example of this “titular association of the aristocracy with the new civic democracy” when the Earl of Rosebery was elected as its first chairman in 1889.

We may never know the author of the first two “Jack the Ripper” letters—some documents relating to the Ripper case are missing, and may have been destroyed in the air raids of 1940-41. Nevertheless, these serial murders would never have generated such enormous publicity if the nightmarish name had not been invented. As for the new Council, its enacted reforms became a symbol for continuing social reform, both in London and the rest of the country. The stirring of “Liberal Socialism” fully surfaced in the 1880s and 1890s and gave birth to the new Independent Labour Party, founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie, and renamed the Labour Party in 1906 when 29 of its candidates won seats in the general election of that year. Its backbone was the growing trade union movement and, together with the Fabian Society founded in 1884, Labour became one of the two major political parties from 1922 onward.

Britain’s recurring love affair with socialism has extended well into the twentieth century. Although the British Left was never taken by Soviet Communism, notable exceptions in the 1930s such as the “Bloomsbury Set” and the secret Cambridge society, The Apostles, and its spymaster Kim Philby, certainly left their mark. British socialists were more than impressed when the American journalist Lincoln Steffens returned from Russia in 1919 and told Bernard Baruch that, “I have been over into the future, and it works.” These words certainly resounded in British (and American) politics, but neither the Labour Party or those who voted for them wanted a revolution against the prevailing British way of life. Not even he who created the trade name “Jack the Ripper” could have foreseen how thoroughly the old Victorian order would be overthrown.