Jack the Ripper: Contemporary Press and Public Suspects

An unidentified assailant nicknamed Jack the Ripper committed a series of murders in 1888 from August to November in the East End of London. Since that time the identity of the killer has been widely debated and over 100 Jack the Ripper suspects have been named. Despite all the suggestions, experts have not found any of the Jack the Rippers suspects strongly persuasive and so the debate continues as to who did the killings.

Who is Jack the Ripper? Author’s collection.

At the time of the infamous murders there were several Ripper candidates mentioned by 19th century contemporaries. Among the most popular Ripper suspects with the press and the general public were William Henry Bury, Thomas Neill Cream, Thomas Hayne Cutbush, Frederick Bailey Deeming, Carl Ferdinand Feigenbaum, and Robert Donston Stephenson. Here is more detail as to why these men appeared to be good Jack the Ripper candidates.

William Henry Bury was the first suspect contemporaries thought was a good contender to be Jack the Ripper. He was born in 1859 and was the youngest of four children born to Henry Bury and his wife Mary Henley. He was orphaned in infancy and went on to become a sawdust merchant. The press and public zeroed in on him as the Ripper after he moved to Dundee from the East End and strangled his wife Ellen Elliott, a former prostitute.

Jack the Ripper - William Henry Bury

William Henry Bury. Author’s collection.

The attack happened at his home on 4 February 1889 and involved extensive knife wounds to his wife’s abdomen. Afterwards he packed her mutilated body into box surrounded by papers, clothing, and books. The corpse remained in this state for a week until his conscience got the better of him and he went to police and gave a full confession. Because Bury’s killing resembled the crimes committed by Jack the Ripper, newspapers in the area reported that he had turned himself in and maintained that he had confessed to being Jack the Ripper. It wasn’t true and in fact, although police grilled him about being the Ripper, he denied any connection to the crimes.

Despite his denials, several Dundee newspapers reported that the “female portion” of the community tended to believe Bury was the Ripper. Conjecture that he was the infamous murderer was also aided by James Berry, London’s executioner, who promoted the idea that Bury was Jack the Ripper:

“Flying rumors began to be whispered abroad that ‘Jack the Ripper’ had come to Dundee, and given himself up. … Everyone began to inquire anxiously of his neighbour if he had heard of the murder. [But] some expressed themselves sceptical about the truth of the matter.”[1]

Skeptics were right. The Bury story appeared to be “some idle rumour which had been set afloat by some busybody anxious to create a sensation.”[2] Moreover, despite Bury’s killing being similar to the Jack the Ripper murders some people maintained that physically it would have been impossible because he was too diminutive and fragile to have committed such unspeakable crimes.

Another possible suspect identified by the Ripper’s contemporaries was Thomas Neill Cream. He was a doctor who secretly specialized in abortions and practiced his trade in Canada and later in Illinois. In 1881 he was found guilty of fatally poisoning his mistress’s husband and was imprisoned in the Illinois State Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois. He was released on 31 July 1891 and moved to London, where he resumed killing.

Jack the Ripper - Thomas Neill Cream

Thomas Neill Cream. Author’s collection.

He was soon found out, arrested, tried, found guilty, and hanged at Newgate Prison on 15 November 1892. Some sources maintain that his last words were reported to be “I am Jack the …,” which was interpreted to mean Jack the Ripper. However, police officials who attended his execution made no mention of this alleged confession.

Jack the Ripper - Thomas Neill Cream comparison

Comparison between Jack the Ripper and Thomas Neill Cream from The Cheltenham Chronicle. Author’s collection.

Although his medical experience appeared to make him an excellent Jack the Ripper candidate, most authorities consider it impossible for Cream to have committed the murders because he was incarcerated at the time. Suggestions about how he could have accomplished the killings while incarcerated include bribing prison officials and getting out before his official release. Another theory is that he had a look-alike serve his sentence. Such ideas seem improbable and evidence at the time from Illinois authorities, newspapers, Cream’s solicitors, Cream’s family, and Cream himself all contradict such possibilities.

Thomas Hayne Cutbush is the third suspect that contemporaries alleged was Jack the Ripper. Cutbush was 22 years old when the murders in London’s East End occurred. He came from a respectable middle-class family, but his childhood was unhappy. He also demonstrated behavioral problems on his first job and pushed his second employer down the stairs. He was ultimately locked up in the asylum in Lambeth, where he remained for just four days before he jumped over the wall and escaped.

In 1891, he was convicted on two different occasions of stabbing the buttocks of two women (Florence Grace Johnson and Isabella Frazer Anderson, both from Kennington). He was found responsible for these crimes by a medical board and diagnosed by doctors as psychotic and dangerous. He was thus confined for an indefinite period at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum in Crowthorne, Berkshire, England.

In February of 1894 England’s The Sun reported that Cutbush was responsible for the Jack the Ripper murders. However, no criminal charges were ever lodged against him, and, in fact, police defended him and dismissed him as the killer. Sir Melville Macnaghten, Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard, was Cutbush’s most noted defender. He categorically denied that Cutbush was the Ripper and identified three other men as more plausible Ripper suspects.*

Cartoon image of Sir Melville Macnaghten. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The fourth Ripper candidate put forth by contemporaries was Frederick Bailey Deeming. He was an English-born Australian murderer convicted and executed for the murder of Emily Lydia Mather in Melbourne, Australia. In addition, the discovery of Mather’s body resulted in the finding of the decomposing bodies of Deeming’s first wife, Marie James, and their four children, which were located under the floorboards in his old Liverpool home. Their deaths were determined to have likely occurred on or about 26 July 1891 while Deeming was courting Mather.

Jack the Ripper - Frederick Bailey Deeming

Frederick Bailey Deeming. Author’s collection.

James and Mather were not the only women that Deeming is alleged to have deceived and courted in his wide travels. So, when he was charged in Australia with the murder of Mather, he became known in the press as the “Modern Blue Beard.” He also used aliases, such as Albert Williams when he was with Mather and Baron Swanston when he was traveling in Sydney. When Deeming was charged with murder, he declared he was innocent and hoped to aid his insanity defense by claiming that he caught syphilis in London and thought his aliases might help him get off. However, witnesses verified Albert Williams and Baron Swanston were both Deeming.

Deeming hoped to remain free and at trial did everything he could to convince the jury to free him. For instance, before the jury retired to consider their verdict, he made a “lengthy … rambling, speech of self-justification.”[3] Nonetheless, despite all his protestations of innocence, his lies, and all his rationalizations, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Understandably, the Australian public could not understand how Deeming could slaughter women and children without compunction. Fueled by press speculation he was soon accused of being the infamous Jack the Ripper. Moreover, The Lancaster Gazette in England reported that “another ‘Ripper’ story has cropped up in connection with Deeming where [he] produced a clasp knife which he opened by means of a spring at the back, saying as he did so, ‘If police saw me with this knife, they would say I was Jack the Ripper.’”[4]

Headlines that he was the Ripper appeared not only in Australia and England but also in the United States. For instance, the Freeport Daily Bulletin out of Illinois questioned of Deeming, “Is he the Ripper?” There was also the all-capped headline from Nebraska’s Columbus Daily Telegram “IS DEEMING THE RIPPER?” In addition, The Boston Globe, declared:

“Deeming’s Description Tallies With That of the Unknown Monster … The evidence pointing to the identity of Deeming with ‘Jack the Ripper’ is growing stronger this evening. Deeming’s appearance is found to tally almost exactly with the only authentic description of the ‘The Ripper’ recorded at Scotland Yard.”[5]

Because Deeming traveled frequently his movements were often obscure and difficult to track. However, it does appear that in late 1888 during the Whitechapel murders he was likely in England. His presence there at such a critical point has thus encouraged speculation today that he is the Ripper. For instance, Robin Napper a former Scotland Yard detective and current forensic researcher, along with a team of researchers, came to the conclusion that the bulk of evidence related to Jack the Ripper leads straight to Deeming.

Despite what some people think of Deeming, Carl Ferdinand Feigenbaum was another suspect contemporaries named in the nineteenth century. He was a German merchant seaman, florist, and gardener and was arrested in 1894 in New York City for cutting the throat of Mrs. Julian Hoffman. Newspapers reported on the heinous murder noting that Feigenbaum was a boarder at Hoffman’s. According to the New-York Tribune on the night of 1 September 1894, 17-year-old Hoffman’s son Michael was awakened by screams from his mother. He rushed to her aid and found Feigenbaum standing over her holding a bloody knife. At trial Michael testified:

“I ran over and kicked him [Feigenbaum] away. He ran at me with a knife and struck at me … mother could not speak. She tried to. Then the police came in.”[6]

After being found guilty of murdering Hoffman, Feigenbaum was executed in the electric chair on 27 April 1896. Soon after, his lawyer, William Sanford Lawton, pronounced Feigenbaum to be Jack the Ripper claiming that he had confessed to being the Ripper before his execution. Lawton maintained that Feigenbaum hated women and had a strong desire to kill them. Lawton also claimed he was revealing such facts about Feigenbaum because “he felt it to be his duty to science and to the law.”[7] In addition, he alleged that Feigenbaum was guilty of perhaps a “dozen other butcheries” and the Marysville, Kansas Marshall County News reported that Lawton said:

“One night I stayed with him [Feigenbaum] for over two hours … and he told me that for years he had been the victim of a malady, a disease that periodically preyed upon him, and which forced him in spite of himself to satisfy an incarnate love he had for women by murdering and mutilating them. I was so startled that for the moment I did not know what to do. Then the Jack the Ripper butcheries occurred to me, and I began to search Feigenbaum’s record. I learned he was in Wisconsin at the time the country was startled by the news of the murder and mutilation of several women there. Then I communicated with London and discovered that Feigenbaum was also there when so many fallen women fell victim to the knife of some mysterious assassin. I questioned Feigenbaum closely and found he could converse with intelligence on surgery and dissection, but when asked if he knew anything about these he would feign an ignorance that was unnatural.”[8]

Although the press reported on Lawton’s claims, the idea was not pursued by police at the time. They probably were not interested because Lawton’s partner, Hugh O. Pentecost, disputed Lawton’s allegations and also maintained there was no proof that at the time of the murders Feigenbaum was in Whitechapel. However, about a century later, author Trevor Marriott, a former British murder squad detective, looked into Lawton’s allegations and argued that Feigenbaum was responsible for the Ripper murders as well as other murders that happened in the United States and Germany between 1891 and 1894.

Although some nineteenth people thought Feigenbaum was Jack the Ripper other contemporaries alleged that Robert Donston Stephenson (also known as Roslyn D’Onston) was a more feasible suspect. He was a journalist and writer interested in the occult and black magic. He drew attention to himself because he acted strangely and was a Ripperologist. In fact, he wrote a newspaper article claiming that Jack the Ripper was French, and that black magic was the motive behind the killings.

Among those that thought Stephenson was Jack the Ripper was an amateur detective, George March. He reported Stephenson to Scotland Yard on Christmas Eve 1888. Newspaper editor William Thomas Stead was a British newspaper editor who, as a pioneer of investigative journalism, became himself a controversial figure during the Victorian era but who also thought Stephenson was Jack the Ripper. In addition, twentieth century author and historian, Melvin Harris, likewise believed Stephenson committed the murders. Harris maintained that Stephenson had the right profile, the opportunity, the motive, and the skills to conduct the murders.

William Thomas Stead. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Suspicion linked to Stephenson was perhaps caused by his strange behavior. He was also an alcoholic and admitted himself to the London Hospital in Whitechapel after suffering a nervous breakdown. Doctors diagnosed him with neurasthenia and noted that he became a patient just before the Ripper murders started and remained there until shortly after they stopped.

Despite all the conjecture by March, Stead, and Harris that Stephenson committed the Ripper crimes, evidence seems to indicate it would have been nearly impossible for him to have done so. Apparently, night-shift rosters and practices in place at the hospital would have prevented him from leaving at night. Since that time no direct proof has ever surfaced and hence most investigators into the Ripper killings have concluded there was no way that Stephenson could have been the infamous Jack the Ripper.

Notes:
*Author A.P. Wolfe wrote a 1993 essay titled “Jack, the myth: A new look at the Ripper.” In it he claims that the police covered up Jack the Ripper’s identity because he was a relative of a Scotland Yard Chief and they didn’t want anyone to know. This idea was supported by others in later works.
According to author Wolf Vanderlinden who wrote “Carl Ferdinand Feigenbaum: An Old Suspect Resurfaces,” in the Ripper Notes: The Legend Continues, maintains that some of the murders listed by Marriott did not actually occur and that newspapers at the time often embellished or created Ripper-like stories to increase sales. In addition, Xanthé Mallett, a Scottish forensic anthropologist and criminologist, investigated the case and concluded: “Initially, I thought Carl Feigenbaum was that serial killer. His profile fit … But further evidence … may show these murders were not all committed by the same person. Feigenbaum could have been responsible for one, some or perhaps all [of the Whitechapel murders].”[9]
Interestingly, two days later, Stephenson reported his own Ripper suspect claiming it was Dr. Morgan Davies of the London Hospital.

References:

  • [1] The Courier and Argus, “Shocking Tragedy in Dundee,” February 12, 1889, p. 3.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] E. Evans, What Ever Happened to Ned Kelly’s Head? (Affirm Press, 2020), ebook
  • [4] The Lancaster Gazette, “The Convict Deeming,” May 21, 1892, p. 3.
  • [5] The Boston Globe, April 8, 1892, p. 5.
  • [6] New York Tribune, “Told How His Mother Was Killed,” October 30, 1894, p. 9.
  • [7] Marshall County News, “Jack the Ripper,” May 1, 1896, p. 3.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] A. Boyle, “Was this the face of Jack the Ripper?,” NBC News, accessed July 29, 2022.

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