A look at "Jack the Ripper" Newspaper Reports by Tony Woolway
Whilst researching my book Cardiff in the Headlines, I came across many references to the unsolved and gruesome “Jack the Ripper” murders, and the fear that the perpetrator of the horrific crimes in the Whitechapel District of London in 1888 had planned to visit or had been spotted in the town.
No doubt there have been serial killers before, and after, but the killings were so abominable and shocking in their intensity that newspaper coverage was at a level unprecedented.
In Cardiff, where victim Mary Kelly lived for some time before heading to London, there was also what some believed sightings of “Jack the Ripper” that spread panic to City and populations further afield.
On October 11, 1888, what was described as “a brutal missive” purporting to be written by “Jack the Ripper” and bearing a London postmark, a letter was received at the Cardiff offices of the Western Mail. The writer threatens to visit Cardiff the following Friday in what was described as written in a diabolical style characteristic of these communications.
The letter addressed to the editor, Western Mail, said:
Dear Old Boss, - What do you think of my little games here – ha! Ha! Next Saturday I am going to give the St Mary St girls a turn. I shall be fairly on their track, you bet. Keep this back until I have done some work. Ha! Ha! Shall down Friday.
JACK THE RIPPER
In Roath, a district of Cardiff, some excitement was created in a hairdresser's shop by a stranger, carrying a black bag and declaring that he could easily “cut a woman's throat without any blood getting upon his clothes”. The man had suddenly left the shop, and a rumour gained ground that he was “Jack the Ripper.”
It wasn't only in Cardiff that the threat of a visit by “Jack the Ripper” was causing some considerable concern. Another letter signed in his name was received by a Llanelli woman, in which it stated that he planned to “do a murder in William Street on Monday or Saturday” that week. In the left-hand corner was roughly drawn, with the words, “This heart of a woman.”
On a Swansea barque Picton Castle, dock labourers at Middlesbrough made a discovery believed to have been the work of “Jack the Ripper.”
Arriving in the Tees from London a woman's hand was found plus a bag, the contents of which emitted a putrid odour. It was found to contain human remains in the state of advanced decomposition.
The Western Mail, October 9 1888 reported a story of a man, Alfred Pearson, who was charged at Brierly Hill with stopping a man and his sweetheart in a dark lane and threatening them with a long knife and proclaiming himself as “Jack the Ripper.” The lady was driven into hysterics, and Pearson bound over to keep the peace. At Goven, Glasgow on the same day, a man who described himself as “Jack the Ripper the second” was fined three guineas for knocking over a married woman and brandishing a knife.
In Yeovil, in January 1889, it was reported that a local “atrocious murder” was the work of “Jack the Ripper,” and that he was on some “murderous tour.”
All over world sightings or copycats littered the press. On December 5 1888 it was reported, again in the Western Mail, of the sensational discovery of an American “Jack the Ripper.” who hides in dark corners and darts out at women with a knife and muttering threats, whilst, in Brussels, a newspaper reported it had received postcards, letters, even telegrams, all signed “Jack the Ripper,” and announcing the writer's intention of visiting the city to murder women in a manner similar to his London prototype.
In Corunna, Spain, the disappearance of two girls was attributed to “The Ripper” who it was thought had recently reached the town and had been “prowling about the place after dark.” Young women and girls no longer went out at night, and even had their doors barricaded, to keep out the “mysterious assassin.” It was also reported that the “Whitechapel ruffian” had written one of his customary cold-blooded epistles to the authorities, telling them that he means to disembowel several “ladies” before he leaves Corunna.
February 9, 1889, brought more reports, which this time, “Jack the Ripper” was in Jamaica. Fearful stories of crimes and mutilations similar to that of Whitechapel which the Western Mail noted that, in the reporter's mind unquestionably indicates that “Jack the Ripper” had gone from England to Jamaica committing a series of “diabolical and mysterious murders.”
A woman had been found early in the morning lying by the roadside, her throat cut from ear to ear, her cheeks, nose and forehead slashed in a manner that would indicate it to be the work of a master butcher. The body mutilated exactly as had been done in London cases and the first of three and on the body by the blade of a small penknife was a card the bore the inscription, JACK THE RIPPER, fourteen more, then quit.
The above was just the tip of the iceberg. Whilst the reports can be easily written off as the work of a copycat killer or just a mad frenzy whipped by a new and sensationalist media. There's no doubting that the unsolved Whitechapel murders were a template for the reporting that was to following in the wake of these unspeakable crimes.
Tony Woolway's book Cardiff in the Headlines is available for purchase now.