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A Clockwork in Crimson

A study of the Jack the Ripper murders


The Torso Killer: A Ghoulish Grandstander

   Jack the Ripper was not alone in his desire to create unfathomable mystery and leave us with an open verdict. And if it is true that The Torso Killer was a different villain (most likely), the Ripper was not the first. This evil person forever remained in the shadow of the Ripper for a very basic reason. There was no mystery to how he killed his victims. Simply put, there wasn’t as much for people to ooh and ahh over. The mystery in The Torso Killer’s signature is in how he placed parts of his victim’s about London. All pieces of the victim were carefully wrapped in clothes or paper and mailed along the Thames or placed in suggestive locations. He took great ghoulish care with each piece. It may have been to disguise the body parts while trotting them about London, for surely he must have had a cart, but it should be undeniable that he wanted to broadcast his work by showing that each piece was the product of deliberate and careful planning as well.

     The Torso Killer’s victims, too, seemed to be prostitutes or homeless poor women. He snatched them up silently and whisked them some place remote enough to torture, kill and dissect. . . not necessarily in that order.

     The “first” victim was dubbed The Whitehall Mystery because on October 2, 1888, just as London entered the true October Terror inspired by the Ripper, construction workers at New Scotland Yard at Whitehall found a woman’s torso wrapped in paper. From this The Torso Killer got his moniker.

   The mystery was equal to the horror. The materials for building the new central police headquarters were stored in the vaults below. The vaults were pitch black as if sunk in ink. The workers themselves needed artificial light in daytime when going down there to retrieve what they needed. It was in these circumstances that they found the parcel. When they unwrapped the rotting parcel it was a disgusting sight, but it was also a tantalizing mystery. . . and the killer had meant it to be that to begin with.

     Workers elaborated at the inquest held by John Troutbeck. Fred Wildborn, one who found it, stressed that in order to see the parcel he had to strike a match repeatedly. He was asked plainly if it would be difficult to find this vault, and he said “Yes, to a stranger.” George Bugden, another worker, testified: “I took a lamp down; without it I should not have been able to see anything. It was as dark as the darkest night.” One of the investigators, Detective Thomas Hawkes, said of the vaults: “They were very dark, so dark that it was impossible for a stranger to reach them without artificial light.” The assistant foreman, Charles Brown, also believed it required previous knowledge to get into the vault. Although there is no watchman, the gates are all locked on Saturday evening except a small walking gate on Cannon Row. But unless the person knew the significance of the string (which unlatched the gate lock), he would not know that it opened the gate. It would take foreknowledge. At closing on Saturday, the parcel it had not been there. The workers insisted on this (Dr. Bond would disagree and believe it had been there a while). Then on October 2, after the weekend, there it was found.

     This conjures a frightful picture of the lengths to which The Torso Killer went to stealthily scout out his proposed drop-off spots beforehand.

     The Torso Killer ensured that the victim would be associated with Jack the Ripper. The uterus was missing from the rotting torso.

     Nevertheless, the link with the Ripper was considered dubious by the police. But there was an interesting encounter which revealed a disturbing link with the Ripper. A witness saw a man getting over the 7 foot tall fence around the construction sight on Cannon Row. It was on Saturday afternoon at 5:20 p.m. after work had ceased and the construction grounds were vacant. He didn’t have the appearance of a sneak thief at all. Nor had he anything in-hand. He was described as follows. The Daily News reported: “a respectably dressed man, about 35 years of age, was seen to get over from the hoarding in Cannon Row, and to walk quietly away, and that he was not followed, or the police informed of the matter, because no importance was attached to the matter at the time.”

     Disturbingly, this comes fairly close to the description of the shabby genteel clerkly Ripper. Both were clearly not the wretches who festered in late night taverns. These killers appeared to be from the new middle class. They also had many other similarities. Both had incredibly good night vision. Both sought to baffle the city and challenge the constabulary, goals to which the Fagan-like gutter criminals could not even aspire. Taken altogether the papers rightly wondered if The Whitehall Mystery was not the product of Jack the Ripper.

     Time, however, would prove The Torso Killer stuck to a very different and original MO and signature. In June 1889 neatly parceled body parts would be found floating along the Thames. This victim became known as The Thames Mystery. Like in the previous case, the head was never located, although almost every other body part was. One piece was especially conspicuous. It was a limb that had been thrown over the wall of the Chelsea estate of Sir Percy Shelley, the son of Mary Shelley the author of Frankenstein, the monster created by sewing together various human body parts. This type of grandstanding fit with the desecration of New Scotland Yard the previous October.

     The victim was established to be one Elizabeth Jackson, a homeless woman who sometimes slept  in Battersea Park. In fact, she boasted she found ways of remaining in the park after the gates were closed at night. In a grisly but touching act, the killer left a big chunk of her torso in a secluded area of the park where most people did not have access. It was found by the groundskeeper.

     One part of Jackson’s body to be found may help us identify the previous Whitehall Torso. A limb was wrapped in old clothes, one piece of which had the initials L.E. Fisher on it. Could that have been The Whitehall Mystery victim back the previous autumn?

     Inquests into the death and butchery of Jackson showed that her uterus was operated upon afterward. Bond wasn’t sure if this parceling out of parts was a doctor trying to hide a botched abortion.

     But that could hardly be the case. The time and effort to parcel each body piece, trot it about and fling it in the Thames, and then conspicuously to engage in dark sentimentality by leaving a chunk in her beloved Battersea Park, is not someone hiding their work. Nor is the garish flamboyance of throwing a limb over Percy Shelley’s wall.

     The Torso Killer was a careful but brutal killer. Fingerprint marks were found on the dismembered thigh, indicating it was clutched in life by a strong hand. Could it then have been the killer’s prints as he dissected her alive or tortured her? In the previous Whitehall Mystery case, a ligature was found tied around the upper part of an arm. This, of course, would make for neater dissection, as it keeps the blood in the arm. This was indeed the case. When it was removed by the police surgeon, the fresh blood came out. Both torsos together indicated a strong hand and premeditative mind. These murders and dissections were not attempts to hide mistakes.

   Disturbingly, this also associates The Torso Killer with Jack the Ripper. Both villains had incredible strength.

     The Torso Killer also had the knowledge of anatomy to the point of at least being a knackerer or butcher. He removed the limbs with clean circular sweeps of the knife, never damaging the joint. By this time, City of London Police were sure that Jack the Ripper was indeed a butcher or knackerer— another disturbing coincidence. How can it be that two serial killers could look descent and clerkly, have good night vision, come and go phantom-like, and display the same butcher’s skill?

     Yet is it hard to believe they were one and the same killer. The Ripper limited himself to a very confined area of Whitechapel and Spitalfields. The Torso Killer was a West End killer who must have had a coach, brougham or cart. He must also have had some remote place where he could take his victims to kill and dismember them. This indicates someone with some funds and property. The next victim’s body would show signs of the worst, screaming torture. The Torso Killer must indeed have had some secluded place.

     This was the Pinchin Street Torso Mystery of September 1889. For the first time The Torso Killer showed his hand in the East End, in Whitechapel itself. In the early morning solitude, the woman’s torso, minus its legs and head, was found under one of the arches of the railroad on Pinchin Street by the COP William Pennet.

     The mystery here fit with the previous cases. The closed-off tunnel was used for breaking rock. As a result a thin layer of rock dust coated it. Yet the torso was found 8 feet inside, without hint of any footprints or carriage wheel about. The killer must have walked purposely softly. Those sleeping in the nearby arches reported hearing nothing . . . although one said he was a bit drunk and might not have noticed. But from whence had the stealthy killer come? Several bobbies patrolled the area. None reported a man walking along with a parcel big enough to carry a rotting corpse in it . . . And it was quite noticeable. Pennet was attracted to the sight by the putrid smell that wafted out of the tunnel. None also heard a coach trot along.

     The killer must have gotten the stinking burden there somehow in a bag of sorts, dumped it and quietly made off.

   Along with the body there was found the chemise. The chemise proved that The Torso Killer tortured his victims, most likely spread-eagle on a hard surface. The chemise was bloodstained from having been wrapped around the neck of the beheaded torso. It was cut down the arms and torn down the front. The Ripper never cut clothes. The Torso Killer apparently did.

     The cuts and the tear down the front tell us much. These tell us that the victim was spread out and tied to stocks or a four poster bed. With her wrists and ankles tied, it would have been impossible to remove her chemise. The only way to do so was to cut it at the arm holes and then tear it down the front and slip it out from under her. Bruises on the back of her hand prove she was tied to stocks or posts and struggled to free herself. Bruises on the back of her shoulder blades and spine show she was struggling with a hard surface beneath her. If she was on a bed, the mattress had been removed and replaced with a hard board.

     The victim was dissected in the same manner as the others. Bagster Phillips suggested the throat had been cut to bleed the victim before the head was removed. This was quite an advance over tying off the limbs with string to reduce the bleeding while cutting them off, as seen in The Thames Mystery.

   There was also unnecessary dissection. There was a deep 15 inch gash in the gut, the arm folded over and the hand stuck into it.

     The nature of the torture and dissection plainly argues that The Torso Killer had some remote place where he could bind and torture his victims and then dissect them in relative secrecy. This in turn argues for the idea that he had a coach. The very fact this West End killer could trot a stinking burden to the East was proof of that.

     This particular victim, though found on the 10th of September, was believed to have been killed on the 8th, the anniversary of the Annie Chapman gutting. Police noted that coincidence. But they had also been noting another: these torso killings suggested that the first killing was long before the Ripper. Looking back, the London police found examples of earlier such murders. The Rainham Mystery of 1887 was thought to be the first, when parts of a woman continued to be found throughout the Thames west of London.

   Yet looking back even further these killings were also oddly like the Tottenham Court Road Mystery of 1884. Here a torso of a woman was found parceled up and deposited before an armory. No one saw this happen despite the fact that the street was constantly patrolled . . . except for 15 minutes when the guard was changed. It was assumed the killer made his move then. A limb was also thrown over a rail at Bedford Square. The arm had a tattoo which suggested it was a prostitute’s. A head, or skull rather, with flesh still clinging to it was also found.

     Looking even further in retrospect has uncovered two similar mysteries in 1872 and 1873 in which body parts of a woman were once again found in the Thames west of London. In one of these cases, the head was actually recovered. It showed that the killer mutilated faces. The nose and chin were cut off. This raises the similarity seen in the later Jack the Ripper murders, specifically Eddowes’ and Kelly’s murders. It is in the former that the perp was seen before and yet described differently than the dark-haired shabby genteel Ripper. Could it have been The Torso Killer imitating the Ripper, the fiend who had easily stolen the limelight on mystery murders?

     It becomes awfully complex to follow that theorizing because of all the dissimilarities and exceptions that exist alongside the similarities. Yet it would be well to at least consider the possibility in general. If 2 perps indeed committed the Ripper murders, could the other have been The Torso Killer? He had certainly shown a knowledge of police beats long before the Ripper went into action. He had shown a desire to baffle and challenge the constabulary, as the 1884 Tottenham Court Mystery shows. He mutilated faces. He knew anatomy. Phillips suggested that the mode in which The Pinchin Street Torso was dissected suggested a knackerer (horse butcher) or someone who had seen butchery enough to imitate it. The similarities are certainly there to the Ripper. The difference is that The Torso Killer seemed far more a diabolical master criminal, with coach and secret wax museum-like facilities.

     The MO and signature of The Torso Killer begs the question: just how well off was he? He must have had a coach. He must have had some place rather secret to do his diabolical work. The pattern indicates it was west of London. He had to trot the parts around. He’d been around for a while and could take long brakes in his work. His victims all had hands that didn’t show manual labor. The West End was home to high end brothers. These women were certainly attracted by more than a thrupence offer.

   Urban legend has given us a top-hatted gent for Jack the Ripper. But one wonders if this doesn’t fit the mug shot of The Torso Killer more. Was there a sadist gent at one of these houses in the West End? Did he lure a number of high end call girls? Did he attract one or two from the streets with the offer of a ride in a grand coach? Prime Minister Gladstone was known to stop his coach and rescue fallen women and take them to rehabilitation. Perhaps an evil gent tried the same pattern, yet without any mercy in his heart. A pregnant Elizabeth Jackson would have reached out for such aid from Battersea Park. A high end call girl would have been attracted to the idea of a lucrative trip.

     Bagster Phillips thought the spine of the Pinchin Street Torso was disarticulated too well for it to have been a doctor, since doctors do not disarticulate bones. Perhaps so. But a doctor could also learn. If an average bloke watching butchery could learn, then a medical man could also learn, especially since by the time of The Pinchin Street Torso Case there had been enough victims for him to have practiced on.

     Having begun in the country west of London, he might also have had a deerstalker hat. Did he wear it symbolically when stalking drabs in Whitechapel? Did he give it to an assistant? When he didn’t require a whole body for his work, did he send out his ever-loyal but twisted assistant to scour late night Whitechapel for a convenient drab? One can indeed wonder. But one thing is certain: The Torso Killer looms as a far more diabolical character than Jack the Ripper.

   Several things unite the two. They both had great night vision (unless one worked for the other), and they knew London and the police beats. They had no regard for the life of prostitutes. They preyed only upon easy game. The Ripper was gutsier, no doubt about that. Evidence indicated they had a butcher’s knowledge and style. Each was out to create a public baffling mystery. Sadly, each succeeded. magglass




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