Waiting for Jack
During the Victorian Era when animalistic urges were hidden and subdued, a series of ferociously primordial murders were committed in Whitechapel. Women were found slain and mutilated in the back alley’s of London’s East End. All of London was aflutter with gossip and an ugly fear. What kind of man would commit such base and disturbing crimes? How could someone capable of this spring from us? There was no answer in sight for them. Despite the best efforts of Scotland Yard, the press, and millions of amateur sleuths, the mystery is still unsolved. Who was Jack the Ripper, and why did he feel the need to kill and deface? The suspects in the case seem to grow and become more ridiculous with time. Everyone from Lewis Carroll to Prince Albert have been suggested. Just about any man (or woman) in the Victorian Era has been considered, even if they were not in London at the time of the murders. One name, however, appears in several locations within the papers involving the long unsolved case. It is not the typical name of an Englishman; it is the name of a Polish Jew, whose family had been a part of the massive Westward migration. Was it just another example of anti-Semitism, or was there a reason Kosminski appeared on the list? In fact, could he possibly be at the root of one of the greatest unsolved crimes of all time? Was he Jack the Ripper or just another police mistake in a case full of them?
The first debate among Ripperoligists is just who was Kosminski? The first mention of him was in response to the The Sun on the 13 of February in 1894. Sir Melville McNaughten wrote the McNaughten Memoranda in response to The Sun’s claim that Jack the Ripper had been known piquirest Thomas Cutbrush. While Jack the Ripper could very possible have started with more mild forms of piquerism, by the time of the murders, he had moved much further with the disease than Cutbrush had. McNaughten prepared but never published his thoughts upon the matter in The McNaughten Memorandum. He names three suspects. The first was “Mr. M.J. Druitt a doctor of about forty years of age and fairly good family, who disappeared at the time of the Miller’s Court murder, and whose body was found floating in the Thames on 31st. December i.e. seven weeks after the said murder” (Braund 98). Another suspect was Michael Ostrog. Ostrog was “a mad Russian doctor and convict and unquestionably a homicidal maniac.” The third suspect was “Kosminski, a Polish Jew who lived in [the very] heart of the murder district where the murders had been committed.” McNaughten gave further descriptions of Kosminski stating that he had a “great hatred of women, with strong homicidal tendencies” (Braund 99). McNaughten also stated that he was “detained in a lunatic asylum about March 1889.” From McNaughten‘s statements, we begin to see Kosminski as an immigrant living in the heart of Whitechapel with tendencies that could lead him to violence.
Sir Robert Anderson, the assistant commissioner in the Metropolitan police CID who was in charge of investigating the Ripper murders from 6 October, 1888, made his opinions about the murders in his autobiography The Lighter Side Of My Official Life. Published in 1910, he claims that “undiscovered murders” are rare in London, and the “”Jack-the-Ripper crimes” are not in that category” (Braund 96). Despite his confidence in the Metropolitan police force’s conclusion, he never names his suspect, but he dropped many a hint. His favored Ripper suspect was “a sexual maniac of a virulent type” “living in the immediate vicinity of the scenes of the murders.” After a door to door search, Anderson and his men came to the conclusion that “he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews.” He then goes on to state that it is a “remarkable fact” that “people of that class in the East End will not give up one of their number to Gentile Justice.” Despite this fairly anti-Semitic comment, he later declares that “my words are meant to specify race, not religion. For it would outrage all religious sentiment to talk of the religion of the loathsome creature whose utterly unmentionable vices reduced him to a level lower than a brute” (Braund 97). He also left a footnote declaring that “only one person had a good view of the murder” and “unhesitatingly identified him”, but “refused to give evidence against him.” So what Anderson leaves us with is a Polish Jew living with his family in the middle of the murder district.
Chief Inspector Donald Swanson left us further clues in his copy of his friend and colleague Sir Robert Anderson’s memoir. Swanson also names his suspect as Kosminski. Noting on Anderson’s identification on the subject, he writes that the suspect remain unidentified because “the suspect was also a Jew” (Braund 100). He also wrote in the margin that “after this identification no other murder of this kind took place in London.” At the end of Anderson’s discussion of the case, Swanson left us with the conclusion of the suspect’s life after the identification. “On the suspect’s return to his brother’s house in Whitechapel he was watched by police…In a very short time the suspect with his hands tied behind his back was sent to Stepney Workhouse and then to Colney Hatch and died shortly afterwards.” From Swanson, we gather the suspect was named Kosminski, he lived with his brother in Whitechapel, and passed away in an asylum soon after the identification at the Police Sea Side Home.
From the police, we have cleared some of the mystery of Jack the Ripper. We have a surname, but no first name. An area in which to search for an address, and the knowledge that he was in an insane asylum.
The testimony of several witnesses helps to bring more weight to this possible image of Jack the Ripper. Witness Elizabeth Young stated that he “appeared to be a foreigner” and described his general appearance as “shabby genteel” (Braund 61). Along with this testimony, witness William Marshall declared that he had “the appearance of a clerk” (Braund 62). George Hutchinson told the police that the man he had seen was “of respectable Jewish appearance” (Braund 66).
Researcher Martin Fido used this knowledge to do an extensive search of workhouse infirmary records, looking for a Kosminski the would have been sent to an insane asylum during March of 1889. The first likely suspect he stumbled upon was Nathan Kaminsky. A bachelor boot maker, Kaminsky was twenty three when he was incarcerated in an asylum. He lived in Black Lion yard in the very heart of the murder district. His medical records seem to indicate syphilis as his cause of death. The issue of the surname difference can be glossed over as the incompetence and anti-Semitism of the asylum attendants, but his age could not be glossed over. Witness Elizabeth Long declared the Ripper to be a “man over forty” (Braund 61), Another witness, one William Marshall of Whitechapel, stated that the man he had seen was “middle aged” (Braund 62). George Hutchinson landed his estimate a little bit younger at thirty four or thirty five. Joseph Lawende’s projected age for the ripper was thirty, a younger than Long’s and Hutchinson‘s guesses, but still considerably older than Kaminsky’s age.
While Kaminsky’s career would give him both the knowledge and “shabby genteel” or clerk-like appearance and his disease could have given him some motive, he is simply too young to have been Jack the Ripper. Soon another problem appeared in Fido’s research. The workhouse infirmary records seemed to be the only place Nathan Kaminksy existed. He found a Nathan Karnsky, but he was even younger and his surname was really Arginsky.
Fido was at an impasse in his research, but going through Colney Hatch records, he found a David Cohen. Proceeding on the grounds that all Jewish names beginning with a “C” of a “K” sound the same to the gentile mind of the Victorian Era, he began to delve into the possibility that Cohen was Jack the Ripper. Cohen had been intensely violent, attacking both himself and others. At times, he had been forced into a straight jacket and isolated.
Still stuck on his Kaminsky theory, Fido then began to make a case that Cohen was Kaminsky. His theory largely hinged upon those writing asylum records being unable to understand their patients and most ripperologists agree that the idea is farfetched and very unlikely, but it was during this that he came upon Aaron Kosminski, who had been incarcerated in 1891 not in 1889 as McNaughten wrote.
While Fido continued to cling to his Cohen/Kaminsky theory, other researchers began to look into Aaron Kosminski. Who was this man caged in an asylum? Was he crazed enough to commit the horrifying crimes of Jack the Ripper? Could the Ripper truly have remained at large for that long without more victims?
The Aaron Kosminski Fido had stumbled upon was born in Poland in 1865 and emigrated to England at the age of eighteen. He was a Jewish bachelor making his living from hairdressing. He was first admitted to the End Old Town Workhouse on the twelfth of July of 1890 for two years of insanity, but was released within three days. He returned to this workhouse on the fourth of February the next year. Both times he was given over to the workhouse by his brother-in-law Woolf Abrahams, whose address was listed as 3 Sion Square. Sion Square connected to Mulberry Street (where John Pizer, also known as Leather Apron resided) in the East End of London This put Kosminski in the heart of Whitechapel when the murders were committed. After his second admittance, he was also released after three days, but this time he was sent to the Middlesex County Lunatic Asylum better known as Colney Hatch. The Register of Admissions records described him as a 26 year old, single hair dresser of the Hebrew faith. He had been “six years insane” from “self abuse” that resulted in “mania” and “incoherence” (Begg 371) Observations by Colney Hatch employees show a man slowly loosing his grip on life. In Dr. Chamber‘s statement (he was a physician at the Old Town Workhouse) he described Kosminski‘s declaration “that he is guided and in his movements altogether controlled by an instinct that informs his mind (Sugden 402),” which led to a refusal of food and poor hygiene. One Jacob Cohen also told Hutchins that Kosminski had taken “up a knife and threatened the life of his sister.” Most likely these “instincts” were aural hallucinations. He was “at times excited and violent (Beggs 373)”. Kosminski was often described as “demented and incoherent.” At one point he even “took up a chair and attempted to strike the charge attendant.”
On April 19th of 1894, Kosminski was taken to Leavesden Asylum. The notes there are fairly sparse, but show a decline in his mental status. He was suffering from “dementia” with “no improvement (Begg 375)”. He was described as having “hallucinations of sight and hearing” and being “exciting and troublesome at times.” As his mental state deteriorated, Kosminski began to refuse food even more. Injuries and a rapidly decreasing weight led to Kosminski’s physical decline (he had lost more a stone of his weight upon arriving at Leavesden) and his death on the 24th of February in 1919.
Looking at these asylum records, his mental deterioration appears to have been progressive. Following the decline of his mind gives us clues about his mental state during the murders, but would he have been coherent enough to commit the murders at the time, and what would have stopped him? Could his grip on reality have been so far gone that he simply did not have the cunning to commit these crimes anymore?
Kosminski seems a likely suspect, but we will probably never land enough evidence on any one suspect to really truly discover who Jack the Ripper was. The files are old and cold, and much of the evidence was written years after the murders. The sensationalist happy press caused many an untrue fact to be spread about London. Even the name Jack the Ripper is the invention of the press. How can we ever know what information from this long cold case is genuine and what is false?
Even so, The debate rages on among Ripper researchers. Was Kosminski violent or was he harmless? The asylum records show a conflicting view of a violent maniac and a pathetically incoherent lump. Are the writings of the Police to be trusted? They do bauble his incarceration and death dates if Kosminski was their number one Ripper suspect. More than anything, were the police just sitting under a tree waiting for an unknown Ripper, and knowing not what to look for, did they seize upon a Polish Jew because of his race? We shall never know, but just like the CID and Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in “Waiting for Godot,” we can no more than let time pass by as we are futilely “Waiting for a Ripper.” Works Cited
Begg, Paul. Jack the Ripper: The Facts. New York: Barnes and Noble Press. 2005.
Braund, Nathan and Jakubowski, Maxim, eds. The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper. New York: Caroll and Graf Publishers. 1999.
Sugden, Phillip. The Complete History of Jack the Ripper. London: Robinson. 2006.