The Autumn of Terror: The Legacy of Jack the Ripper and the Newspapermen who made him

During the autumn of 1888, London was in turmoil. A series of gruesome murders were taking place in the East End. Prostitutes were strangled to unconsciousness or death before being gently lowered to the ground where their throats were cut. They were then mutilated and abandoned, usually in the street. Several names were attributed to the killer who stalked the streets of Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Aldgate. Some at the time simply called him the Whitechapel Murderer, others called him “Leather Apron”. In the modern day, we know him as Jack the Ripper. Nick Tingley explains….


Despite the murders occurring over a century ago, we are no closer to identifying who this mysterious killer was. Historians and Ripperologists have published hundreds of books and papers that describe the murders in exacting detail and have made various claims about the identity of the killer but none of them could ever hope to put the debate to rest. The reason for this is not so much from a lack of evidence, although the presence of today’s scientific methodology in late nineteenth century London may well have stood the police force of the time in better stead. In fact, if there is anything that truly hounds anyone attempting to identify Jack the Ripper, it is the overwhelming amount of evidence that must be shifted through to find the grain of truth.

The Autumn of Terror: The Legacy of Jack the Ripper and the Newspapermen who made him

Jack the Ripper as depicted by Tom Merry in Puck magazine.

There is even debate about how many murders can be attributed to Jack the Ripper. Theories range from the generally accepted five canonical victims (who were all murdered between August 31 and November 9, 1888) and a further thirteen victims who were murdered between December 1887 and April 1891. And whilst the police struggled to find the Ripper, they were hampered by the press, both locally and across the country, who were keen to keep the Jack the Ripper story going for as long as possible. Hundreds of letters were sent to the police during the Autumn of Terror, all of which claimed to have been written by the Whitechapel Murderer. Of those that were not written by fools trying to incite more terror, most were almost certainly written by newspapermen attempting to flesh out the story.

It is from many of these regional newspapers that we can find some interesting stories that show the Autumn of Terror was not just a plague of fear that was rampant in London. It was a genuine horror that spread all across the British Isles and even reached out across Europe.


“I am Jack the Ripper”

Throughout the Autumn of Terror there were many instances of people claiming to be Jack the Ripper. Whether it was in the form of a letter sent to the police or newspapers or whether it was a man surrendering himself to a police station, the newspapers were ready to report it. In fact, many of the smaller regional newspapers even started having regular Jack the Ripper bulletins to keep everyone up to date on the comings and goings of the case.

More often than not, these bulletins were short and matter of fact. One such bulletin from the Edinburgh Evening News (October 11, 1888) tells the story of a man named Gerry who surrendered himself to the police in London, claiming to be the Whitechapel murderer. The report mentions that he was quickly released without charge but still makes a point of mentioning the incident to keep the Edinburgh populace completely up to date with events in London.

With small incidences like these making their way into the local newspapers, it is hardly a surprise that soon stories began to be printed of events where criminals made casual remarks to Jack the Ripper. One such story was printed in the Cornishman (November 8, 1888), which detailed the story of a young St Buryan woman who was accosted by a strange man who announced that he was Jack the Ripper when she refused to walk with him. She quickly ran back to her home and the man disappeared. The following day, Mary Jane Kelly, the last of the canonical victims, was found butchered in her lodgings in London and the newspapers had something more concrete to report on.

These incidences of people claiming to be Jack the Ripper continued throughout 1888, and were reported by the newspapers of the time. Many of these reports came from court proceedings. More often than not, these detailed events where a man was arrested for being drunk and disorderly and, during the course of disorderly conduct, happened to shout that he was Jack the Ripper. While it was apparent that the police were not concerned by these impromptu drunken confessions, the local newspapers were quick to question whether any of these were just the ramblings of a drunken man.


The Ripper Victims Who Weren’t

The Autumn of Terror had spread so far that it was almost inevitable that it would eventually hurt someone. On October 27, 1888, the York Herald reported a story that had come from Northern Ireland. In Kilkeel, County Down, a young lady named Millegan would become a victim of Jack the Ripper. Whilst walking down the street, Millegan was startled by a man who jumped out at her, brandishing a knife and claiming he was Jack the Ripper. Such was the shock of this incident that Millegan fainted and suffered from a fever from which she never recovered.

On the same day, the Aberdeen Journal reported the story of Theresa Unwin from Sheffield who had been found dead at her home. She had committed suicide with a carving knife. Although her husband was keen to point out that there was no history of insanity in the family, Theresa had reported having a dream about Jack the Ripper. The papers were keen to play up to the idea that this dream had been what prompted her suicide.

Although neither of these women probably ever had contact with the man who committed the Whitechapel Murders, it is undeniable that they were victims of Jack the Ripper and the terror that had been spread around the country by the newspapers of the time.


Amateur Sleuths

While the terror inspired many to made outlandish claims of being the Ripper to terrify those around them, others seemed to be inspired to take action to capture the Whitechapel Murderer – sometimes with hilarious consequences.

On October 16, 1888, a few weeks after the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddows, both generally believed to be Ripper victims, “An Elderly Gentleman” wrote to The Times of London detailing his recent trip to the north of Britain. The gentleman wrote of how he had been walking along a road to visit a friend of his when seven young colliers confronted him. The young men apparently believed he was Jack the Ripper and wanted to take him into custody. When the gentleman refused, they attempted to threaten him, with a gun they didn’t have, and coerce him using the authority of the police, which they also didn’t have. The gentleman simply continued walking to his friend’s house at which point the seven lads disappeared.

This was not the only time when people in Britain attempted to take the Jack the Ripper matter into their own hands. All across the country, newspapers began to publish reports of young men who were arrested after beating up other members of the community in the belief that they had found Jack the Ripper. In one instance, a man named John Brinkley was charged with being drunk when he went out into the streets of London dressed in a woman’s skirt, shawl and hat (Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, November 14, 1888). When questioned by the police, Brinkley replied that he had intended to dress like a woman so he could lure Jack the Ripper to him and catch him in the act. It apparently had never occurred to Brinkley, that this act was not only ridiculous but could also have put him in serious danger – although probably not from the Ripper himself. 

The Autumn of Terror: The Legacy of Jack the Ripper and the Newspapermen who made him

The first letter from Jack the Ripper – September 25, 1888.

The Travelling Ripper

A month or two after Mary Jane Kelly’s murder, it appears that the wave of terror was beginning to calm down in Britain. Regional newspapers were publishing less about the Whitechapel murders, although it had by no means stopped. By November 27, newspapers were beginning to report on a letter that had purportedly come from “The Ripper’s Pal”. This letter, sent to the Nottingham Daily Express, claimed that the Ripper had come from Bavaria and that he, the Ripper’s Pal, had come from America and that they would soon be heading out of the country.

Whether this letter really did come from anyone associated with the Whitechapel murders, we will never know. What is interesting is that, barely a month after this letter was published around the country, someone seems to have taken it on themselves to finish the story. On December 18, Jack the Ripper reportedly arrived in Berlin, sending a letter to the Chief of Police stating:

As I now intend to stay some time here, I should like to see if the celebrated Berlin police succeed in catching me. I only want 15 victims. Therefore, beware! Jack the Ripper.”


The British newspapers again jumped to report the migration of Jack the Ripper, although they were careful to point out that the German police had already disregarded the note as a practical joke. The fear of Jack the Ripper had spread to the European continent and now it appeared that German citizens were hopping on the bandwagon.

But it didn’t stop there. Within ten days, similar letters and telegrams had been sent to King Leopold in Brussels, announcing that Jack was coming to commit his crimes there. What had been a wave of crime that had been very much contained within a square mile area of London had now become a pandemic of fear across a continent.

Ultimately, the identity of Jack the Ripper will remain a mystery forever. But his legacy lived on and lasts to the modern day thanks to the newspaper coverage of the Whitechapel murders and the subsequent wave of terror that followed.


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