In February 1891 Jack the Ripper returned, or did he?
That is the basis of my book. Did Jack the Ripper return to Whitechapel and murder Frances Coles?
I wanted to write her story because I believe no-one had ever done justice to the narrative around her death. For over 130 years she has been largely ignored or simply lumped into the Jack the Ripper saga almost as an afterthought. Maybe it is easier to accept she had become his last victim than to really look seriously at her case and question the events of 13 February ’91. Otherwise her death simply becomes another Victorian murder never likely to be solved because she had probably been a victim of the man in the cloak wearing a tall hat, who had stalked Whitechapel’s streets back in 1888. But I wanted to know if that were really true.
The question I asked myself was whether it was a reasonable conclusion to draw or was that conclusion flawed? Did Jack really wander back onto London’s streets three years after the last of what are commonly known as the canonical 5, or did another murderer stalk those same streets?
Personally, I’ve never been wholly convinced by the notion that the murders back in 1888 were all the work of one man. Take a look at the killing of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly. In particular the detail surrounding their deaths. In many ways each murder is different. Granted there are certain similarities but maybe enough differences to question the wisdom of modern day thinkers. Some were killed on the street, one definitely indoors, some mutilated, some not and so on. Then there are the others either side of those 5 murders. Rose Mylett, Emma Smith, Martha Tabram, Alice McKenzie, Frances Coles and a few that got away. So, to my mind at least, that suggests multiple murderers and a crime list lumped together by media, police, and a reading public all too eager to accept the so-called,’informed view.’
Television and Hollywood favoured the Tall Hat guy. The mysterious figure appearing out the London smog, unseen until he struck. Numerous writers added flesh to the bones, so to speak, and pointed at the mad man, the American, the artist, the policeman, or the doctor. Take your pick, they can all be made to fit. But if we really knew who, if any, really did fit the bill there would be no more books about Jack the Ripper, would there?
So, in the case of Frances Coles, pointing a finger in his direction keeps his story alive and ensures her murder remains forever unsolved. A good enough reason I thought to re-open her case and take a more detailed look. What research revealed is not just how complex the case against the Ripper really is but also just how macabre it is. Here is a man, I’m pretty sure it was a man, operating at the dead of night, in most cases out on the street, surrounded by police and carrying out the most horrific, brutal, bloody attacks on women then escaping unseen. How?
Surely not possible, a killer in plain sight? It has to be a possibility that’s exactly what he was. A man visible, maybe known to the police, perhaps through his occupation, a street presence accepted and never questioned. Why? Simply because police knew him, had maybe even questioned him, but a man who was never considered a killer because his occupation put him out on the street. Credible? I think so. The story told some years after the murders had stopped by sailor, James Brame, though discredited because it was an exaggerated tale, did probably have an element of truth within it. He claimed the Ripper was a sailor and worked in tangent with another man and always, when out to kill, dressed as a slaughter man. Why not?
Whilst I don’t believe Brame knew the identity of the Whitechapel killer there are elements of his story, all of which I examined in ‘Return of the Ripper? The murder of Frances Coles,’ that resonate for me. It has to be possible that far being the man in the top hat the killer was, as Brame described, a man of the street and as such ignored by everyone involved in the case. It certainly made me think, which brings me back to Frances, and for me at least challenges Jack’s presence in Swallow Gardens back in 1891.It has to be unlikely, despite what the press thought at the time, that she was caught by the world’s most famous serial killer’s return to old haunts. But I can understand just why his name was dragged into her murder and if I’m honest I can’t, with conviction, discount him.
All of which means if not him then who?
Her murder certainly asked questions of the investigating police and the methods they had used to investigate the original 1888 killings. It also re-invigorated a bias press and in many ways helped moved forward police procedure when it came to how they handled murder sites. Lessons had been learned from that earlier catalogue of murder and new ones would be learned at future murder sites. But at the time of Frances’s death there were still police inadequacies. History shows they improved significantly, as did the science behind forensic pathology. Unfortunately none of it helped bring justice for her or her family.
In the book I’ve tried to examine the arguments that raged around her death and the testimony presented to police by witnesses and the various inquests. I also examine in detail the other unsolved murders that were relevant and there were quite a few. My intention was to present a narrative that is both detailed, concise and questioning. Looking at her murder and those considered to be the work of Jack the Ripper, in tandem if you like, helps to give a more rounded picture of London back then and just how dangerous the streets were after dark. It also lets the reader make their own mind up as to the veracity of the Ripper legend and whether or not he was Whitechapel’s only killer.