While Jack the Ripper was committing his evil acts in Whitechapel during the Autumn of 1888 another serial killer was also at work in London (and one of these killings is listed as one of the twelve murders in the Whitechapel Murder file alongside the five killings of Jack the Ripper). It began in May 1887 – over a year before Saucy Jack’s reign of terror began – when in Rainham (a village in the Thames River Valley) a bundle was pulled from the river containing a female torso. Over the next two months various other components of the same body were discovered in various parts of London until a complete corpse, minus the head and upper chest, could be reconstructed.
It was agreed by medical men examining the body that there was a degree of medical knowledge needed, but the dissection had not been committed for medical purposes. A cause of death could not be determined or even murder proven, so the jury had to return a verdict of “Found Dead”.
Over a year later in September 1888 parts of a second body began being discovered across the city. September 11th a female arm was discovered in the Thames off Pimlico. On the 28th another arm was found, this time along the Lambeth Road. Most humiliatingly for the police was the discovered of the torso of the victim, this time in the basement foundations of the new Scotland Yard building, being built to act as headquarters for the Metropolitan Police! The press dubbed this discovered “The Whitehall Mystery”. The inquest again could not find a cause of death and returned a verdict of “Found Dead”. Again, the likelihood of the perpetrator possessing anatomical knowledge was raised with Dr Charles Hibbert stating “I thought the arm was cut off by a person who, while he was not necessarily an anatomist, certainly knew what he was doing-who knew where the joints were and cut them pretty regularly.”
On 10th September 1889 an ominous message was telegraphed to all police stations in London: “Whitechapel Again!” – but this time the message did not refer to a fresh Ripper murder, but the discovery of a woman’s torso in the railway arches on Pinchin Street. The discovery was made by a constable on his beat at approximately 5.25am. PC William Pennett was walking this beat for the first time, so was possibly being extra vigilant as inside a railway arch with hoarding turned down he spotted a bundle and crossed the street to investigate. Inside he found a human torso sans head and legs, clad in the scant remains of a bloody chemise. No further remains of this body were found, and in this case there was some debate about whether the dismembered possessed anatomical knowledge (or merely butchery skills). Wynne Baxter (of Jack the Ripper case fame) presided over the unusually (for him at least) brief inquest where a verdict of “wilful murder against some person or persons unknown” was returned. As in the previous two torso murders, the identity of the victim was never firmly established.
The case also had a curious end. Following the inquest the police had wanted the body to be buried sealed in an airtight tin box filled with spirits (presumably to try and stave off further decomposition with a view of future exhumation should a potential identity for the victim be discovered or further body parts turn up) but this plan failed when the solderer told them the spirits would leak during the soldering process. To solve this, a properly constructed case was ordered at the cost of 12 shillings, in which the torso was placed and soldered shut. It was buried in the East London Cemetery in a black wooden box with a metal plate affixed reading “This case contains the body of a woman (unknown) found in Pinchin Street St. Georges-in-the-East 10th Septr./89”. Because of the location and time the body was found, the case can be found in the Whitechapel Murders file however it is generally agreed that like many of the cases it has nothing to do with the Ripper murders.
So who was the Thames Torso Murderer? With no identity for victims, no witnesses and no suspects the identity of this killer has no doubt been lost to the mists of time. In all probability though he had some knowledge of anatomy, either had a method of transportation or was fairly transient (as the dumping grounds moved across London) and possibly lived near to the Thames. He also most likely had a private residence or place of business, as he was able to dismember the bodies and wrap them undisturbed (something impossible for the resident of a lodging house or shared room) but in all likelihood lived (or worked) alone as the work would be messy and the bodies had begun to decompose. He also seemed to have some knowledge of preservation as there were attempts to preserve some of the body parts.
It was theorised that the murder victims could have fallen victim to a botched back street abortionist. Abortion was illegal in the 1880’s and a highly risky procedure. The penalties for those found to be carrying out abortions was quite severe (especially if they resulted in death) so an abortionist would try and pass off any accidental deaths as quietly as possible – so perhaps dismembering and disposing of the body parts around London would be a good way. The heads would undoubtedly be disposed of in some other way to prevent identification of the victims (which could lead to identification of the abortionist).
Alternatively, the killer may have been a serial killer who liked to cut up the bodies to fulfil some macabre fantasy. If so, the heads may have been kept as trophies (they may have been disposed of by the killer or their family), been destroyed in the war or are locked away somewhere waiting for discovery some day.