The Search for Jack the Ripper

London, 1888. The ‘Autumn of Terror.’ Over a three month period, five women were brutally mutilated by a killer known only as “Jack the Ripper.” It was a name birthed from a letter sent to the “Boss” of Central News Agency of that year – allegedly from the killer himself. It detailed his “grand work” and was signed Jack the Ripper.

And for more than 120 years, Jack the Ripper’s identity has remained a mystery. If we take witness statement as fact, he was between 5 feet and 5 feet 11 inches tall. He was anywhere from 25 to 40 in age, with a dark to fair skin tone. He had a beard, moustache or a clean-shaven appearance. And if those descriptions aren’t wide-ranging enough, he may have worn one of eight different kinds of hats – none of which were a top hat, a commonly-viewed accessory in modern-day depictions of the murderer.

Since the murders, about 140 potential killers – from a sham American doctor to Queen Victoria’s own surgeon – have been suggested by Ripperologists. But from a forensic point of view, this case is almost completely cold. During the time of Jack the Ripper, there was no such thing as DNA analysis or closed-circuit televisions.

So, what do we know?

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Well, Jack the Ripper’s first murder in London took place on Friday, August 31st 1888 and his last victim died at his hand on November 9th, 1888. While it’s widely considered that Jack the Ripper had five victims, some Ripperlogists suggest he may have killed seven or more individuals.

During Victorian times, only the most desperate, unruly people lived in Whitechapel, an area in East London. Whitechapel was a confusing labyrinth of alleys and tiny streets and dark side routes, making it a difficult area to police – so crime levels were very high. Criminals who knew their way around could often outrun a policeman. Also, the London Underground – first constructed in 1863 – was operative around the times of the murders. Some experts believe that Jack the Ripper may have used it as an escape route.

Jack the Ripper had a definitive modus operandi. He targeted prostitutes in the early hours of morning. He took them to secluded locations, killing with a long-bladed knife. There’s no evidence he ever had sex with his victims, but he slashed their throats and mutilated their bodies – from carving crosses into their faces to slicing the abdominal region to even removing the uterus. For many of these monstrous crimes, there were no witnesses, no clues.

But there’s a lead that may help investigators solve the mystery of Jack the Ripper’s identity. In 1891, a Ripper-like murder occurred in New York’s Lower East Side – nearly three years after London’s Autumn of Terror. The victim was a prostitute and displayed mutilated markings similar to that of Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel victims.

Could Jack the Ripper have fled London and continued killing in America?

Tune in tonight to Finding Jack the Ripper at 10 PM et/pt on the National Geographic Channel.