As a researcher and historian I often get asked what tools Jack the Ripper used. As he was never caught we can only theorise, but here are some of the tools he used or may have been likely to have used:
Jack the Ripper’s primary tool was the knife. Since before records began, humankind have historically used knives and their bladed relations as tools for making clothing and other work tools, for building, craft and preparing food. They of course have also been used as weapons for hunting, defence and murder. Used by humans for at least two and a half million years, originally made of stone or flint, before graduating to metals as we have learnt new manufacturing techniques, the blade is one of our oldest tools. Interestingly, the word ‘knife’ comes from the Old Norse word for blade: “knifr”. Due to its unique place in the history of humanity, it is no wonder that many cultures and religions attach a special significance to knives, and sometimes killers do too. It is estimated that about half of all murders are committed by knives or bladed instruments. They are common household objects – we all own at least one and sometimes several – they are on hand when an argument gets out of hand and so commonplace and easily concealed they can be carried for pre-planned murder and are often not distinguishable from similar blades.
The blade sometimes takes a special significance in a murder. In the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the first murder, some theologians believe that the weapon used was bladed (the English translation of the Hebrew name Cain is “spear”). In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the dagger takes a special significance during Macbeth’s planning over the murder of Duncan, as he wrestles with whether to commit the act – “Is this a dagger which I see before me… Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going, and such an instrument I was to use.” He is urged on by an illusion of the dagger itself.
Psychology tells us much about the use of a knife in a murder. A knife is personal, the killer has to get up close to their victim – within touching distance – and use some degree of force and strength. Stabbing takes rage, cutting and eviscerating requires deliberate force and nerve. This type of murder is visceral and graphic. Some have even suggested a knife becomes an extension of the body when used, or a surrogate penis when other forms of sexual gratification are not possible for the killer.
In the case of Jack the Ripper, several knives or other bladed weapons have been suggested to have been used by the killer. Dr Thomas Bond examined the autopsy reports of all the victims and in a report to Sir Robert Anderson concludes the following: “The instrument must have been a strong knife at least six inches long, very sharp, pointed at the top and about an inch in width. It may have been a clasp knife, a butcher’s knife or a surgeon’s knife. I think it was no doubt a straight knife.” This conclusion of Bond’s has no doubt helped to fuel the fires of theories that the Ripper was a mad doctor, and at the time police questioned butchers and medical students.
In addition, in the non-canonical murder of Martha Tabram Dr Killeen concluded that all but one of her 39 wounds could have been caused by an “ordinary pen-knife”, but one wound was caused by a bayonet or dagger. Because of this (and corroborating eye witness statements) the police at the time believed her killer may have been a soldier.
Ripperologist and former police officer Donald Rumbelow has theorised that the mutilations on Mary Kelly were partly caused by an axe or hatchet. This view is not held by the majority of experts and does not seem to be corroborated by any surviving medical reports.
Rumbelow is also the owner of a knife which is claimed may have belonged to Jack the Ripper. The knife, originally a 12 inch long double edged amputation knife with thumb grip, was given to Dorothy Stroud in 1937 by Hugh Pollard (sporting editor of Country Life and partner of gunsmith Robert Churchill, Scotland Yard’s ballistics expert, which gives the knife a plausible circumstantial provenance in Rumbelow’s eyes). It was given to Miss Stroud in a box lined with blood-stained velvet, which she burnt and used the knife for many years for carving and gardening. She snapped the blade when pruning a privet bush (having the broken end ground and bevelled) so it is now slightly shorter than its original 12 inches. If it is Jack the Ripper’s knife, it is not known where it came from as a murder weapon was never found (though one of the initial news reports into Annie Chapman did claim one was).
Tony Williams has claimed that a surgical knife found in the archived possessions of his distant relation surgeon Sir John Williams, stored in the National Library of Wales is the knife of Jack the Ripper. Tony Williams claims this is a “smoking gun” of evidence against his famous relative, but like all of Williams claims it should be treated with a fairly large pinch of salt. As on Sir John’s death the National Library inherited all of his personal possessions, it is hardly surprising a surgeon’s knife be found with other medical materials and paraphernalia in the possessions of a surgeon.
2. Local knowledge
Jack the Ripper undoubtedly had some knowledge of the area. Even in 2014 it is fairly easy to get lost in the streets of the East End, but in 1888 the area was a rats’ maze of alleyways and back passages. The Ripper managed to escape unseen and unsuspected before the alarm was raised, suggesting he had some knowledge of these streets. Geographical profiling (a method of determining from crime locations the most likely place of residence of the perpetrator, using computer calculated statistical analysis and patterns of other known offenders) in both 2008 and 2014 confirmed that it was highly likely the killer lived on Flower and Dean Street, one of the most dangerous and notorious slums in the heart of the East End, demolished in 1894. The modern day Flower and Dean Walk housing block stands where the street did and our tour passes it.
London, the city of pea-soupers and fogs so thick you can’t see inches in front of you. A cloaked figure emerges from this mist, despatches his victim and vanishes again into the fog. This is certainly the popular image of Jack the Ripper, but did he use the fog to aid his murders? Quite the contrary in fact – there was no fog on the nights of his murders and October, the only month with fog in Autumn 1888 saw no killings. Perhaps Jack thought the fog would be detrimental to his efforts – hiding away from policemen and vigilante patrols – so he decided to stay in those nights, leaving the image of a killer on foggy London streets consigned to the movies.
Like many serial killers, Jack the Ripper worked at night, using darkness to his advantage. But the streets of Whitechapel in 1888 were much darker than those today. There was no electric street lighting, just sporadically placed gas lamps, giving off much less light through their dirty glass panes than the street lights we know today. The police also didn’t have torches as they do today, but instead small handheld oil lamps, barely giving off enough light to illuminate a doorway. Jack would no doubt have used this to his advantage. Many of his murders took place in very dark conditions. Martha Tabram’s body was initially mistaken for a sleeping tramp because the landing of George Yard buildings was so dark. Bucks Row was so dark on the night of Polly Nichols murder the cartman who found her initially mistook her for a tarpaulin. When Louis Diemschutz drove his cart into Dutfield’s Yard, it was only his pony shying that alerted him to something being amiss and he had to light a match to see Elizabeth Stride’s body. Mitre Square was so dark that PC Harvey saw it as being empty from Church Passage, yet five minutes later when PC Watkins shone his light into the Southwest corner he discovered Catherine Eddowes body. Despite this fondness for the dark, it was getting light when Jack the Ripper murdered Annie Chapman in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street.
5. A coach
Some theories, such as Stephen Knights Royal Conspiracy, have suggested that Jack the Ripper committed his murders and subsequent mutilations in a coach and used it to escape from the crimes. This is unlikely as the poor residents of Whitechapel would not own such a vehicle and it would have made a lot of noise (especially in a narrow and quiet street such as Bucks Row), so not an inconspicuous method. The rarity of transport such as this on the streets of the East End was noted by George Sims, who wrote “After you have passed Aldgate Station the hansom becomes rarer and rarer. A little way beyond Leman Street it is practically extinct.” Most of the murder sites are not directly accessible by road so the bodies would have to have been carried or dragged if killed in a coach which would have drawn attention to the killer and increase the risk of being caught.