On the 31st August 1888, following the murder of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols in Bucks Row, Scotland Yard seconded an experienced officer to J Division, Bethnal Green to lead the ground investigation into the Whitechapel Murders. Just over a week later, after the murder of Annie Chapman in Hanbury Street he would also be seconded to H Division. This man was to become the police officer most frequently associated with the case, and his name was Frederick George Abberline.
He was born in 1843 in Dorset, and he was the only son of a man of many trades. His father’s numerous guises include saddlemaker, minor local government man and shopkeeper. He initially worked as a clockmaker until he left home and moved to London to enlist in the Metropolitan Police Force in January 1863 in N Division, Islington. Two and half years later he was promoted to Sergeant and moved to Y Division, Highgate. In 1867 he was assigned to plain clothes to investigate Fenian activities. In March 1873 he was promoted to Inspector and assigned to H Division, Whitechapel before being promoted to Local Inspector in charge of CID. It is this experience of the East End and its peoples that caused him to be seconded back to the East End to lead the Ripper case after his transfer to A Division, Whitehall and Central Division Scotland Yard during 1887.
He was put in charge of the on the ground investigation due to his extensive experience and knowledge of the area, despite the fact that DC (later Chief Inspector) Walter Dew described him as looking and sounding like a bank manager. Aged 45 years at the time, he was portly and balding with thick moustache and bushy side whiskers. He was one of the most important members of the investigation.
As we have already stated, Abberline entered the Whitechapel Murder investigation following the murder of Polly Nichols and on 1st September 1888 he was sent to observe the inquest. On 8th September, he was instructed to assist H Division with the Annie Chapman murder (as Local Inspector Edmund Reid was on leave and uniformed Divisional Inspector Joseph Chandler had been seconded into plain clothes and put in charge of the investigation). This made Abberline the lynchpin between the murders in various divisions. On the 14th September, he believed the torn envelope found near Annie Chapman’s body could be a vital clue, and so sent Chandler to investigate at the the Royal Sussex regiments headquarters in Farnborough (in another jurisdiction). Despite his experience in the police, Abberline did this without first seeking authority from his superiors, causing him to have to retrospectively apply for permission for Chandler’s trip and for the expenses claim for travel (which was granted). Does this indicate that at times Abberline could act as a bit of a maverick?
In early October 1888 Abberline personally travelled to Gravesend, Kent to escort potential Ripper suspect William Pigott to London to attend an identification parade. He also led the investigation into various butchers suspected of involvement, including Joseph Isenschmid, and was keen to organise an identification parade at the Fairfield Road Lunatic Asylum using the same witnesses used in the Pigott parade. On 30th September Abberline gave officers instructions to make door to door enquiries in the Berner Street area following Elizabeth Stride’s murder.
On the morning of 9th November 1888 Abberline was called to Millers Court, arriving at 11.30am. He liaised with Inspector Beck and Dr Bagster Phillips, before taking charge of the scene. Based on recommendations from the Inspector and Doctor that bloodhounds had been called for and they should avoid entering the room so not to contaminate any potential scent left by the killer, Abberline decided they should wait. Abberline was not aware that the dogs had been sent back to their owner 200 miles away and the door was not forced open for about two hours. When the door was finally opened, Abberline conducted a meticulous inventory of the contents of the room and arranged for drawings of the layout to be made (these are unfortunately now lost) and that photos be taken (perhaps the very first crime scene photograph to be taken in Britain). On the 12th November, Abberline would interview George Hutchinson and appears to have believed his controversial statement and witness description.
In early 1889, after several months with no further murders, Abberline was released from the Whitechapel Murder investigation and returned to Central Office Scotland Yard.
In 1889 he investigated the Cleveland Street Scandal when a male brothel was investigated in Fitzrovia. This establishment had several high profile clients (apparently including the Duke of Clarence) at a time when homosexuality was illegal, and it was rumoured the police covered up – the young male prostitutes had light sentences and no clients were prosecuted.
In December 1890 he was promoted to Chief Inspector before retiring to in 1892 with 82 commendations and awards. He then went into private detective work, including working for the famous Pinkerton detective agency for twelve years, both in Monte Carlo and running their European agency. He retired in 1894 to Bournemouth.
Abberline was married twice, first in 1868 to Martha but sadly his wife died of tuberculosis two months after their wedding. He remarried in 1876 to Emily, but the couple had no children. They would remain married until his death.
Regarding his failure to capture the Ripper, in 1903 he seemed to feel that recently captured wife murderer Severyn Klosowski (aka George Chapman) may have been responsible, but also confessed police were none the wiser.
He died in 1929 in Bournemouth. In 2001 a blue plaque was unveiled at his former home.
Because of his association with the Jack the Ripper case, Frederick Abberline has been frequently portrayed in films and on television – albeit in a fictionalised form. In the film 1988 he is played by Michael Caine as washed up alcoholic. Jonny Depp would portray him in 2001 in From Hell as an opium addicted psychic. Hugo Weaving portrays Scotland Yard’s equivalent of the X Files’s Mulder in the 2010 remake of the Wolfman (inexplicably renamed Francis Aberline). Finally, in the recent BBC series Ripper Street, set in the years following the Ripper case, Clive Russell portrays an Abberline haunted by his failure to find the Ripper. As always with media interpretations, little of the real man remains leaving the one who truly hunted Jack the Ripper lost to the mists of time.