Who Was the Real Jack the Ripper and How Did He Escape Justice? | History Hit

Who Was the Real Jack the Ripper and How Did He Escape Justice?

Christine Ward-Agius and Jonathan Hainsworth

06 Mar 2020

Despite everything that has been written and broadcast about this infamous crime, in reality people hardly know anything about the real “Jack the Ripper” case – and what they do know is mostly mistaken.

The real murderer was in fact a talented English lawyer who in the year before the “Ripper” slayings had defended a murderer in court and had tried – unsuccessfully – to shift his client’s blame onto a prostitute.

Was this case the “trigger” for his violence towards vulnerable, homeless women?

Mat McLachlan tours the streets of Whitechapel and visits the sites associated with Jack the Ripper.
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Identifying the Ripper

Between 1888 and 1891, about a dozen women driven into prostitution by poverty were murdered in the East End of London, all supposedly by “Jack the Ripper”. Only 5 of these murders were later solved by a police chief, Sir Melville Macnaghten, Assistant Commissioner of the C.I.D.

Jack the Ripper

The cover of Puck magazine featuring cartoonist Tom Merry’s depiction of the unidentified ‘Jack the Ripper’, September 1889 (Credit: William Mecham).

Macnaghten identified the murderer – by then deceased – as a handsome, 31-year old barrister and first-class cricketer called Montague John Druitt, who had taken his own life in the River Thames at the end of 1888.

Montague was the nephew of one of Victorian England’s most famous physicians and an authority on alcohol consumption, public sanitation and contagious disease: Dr. Robert Druitt, whose name was exploited by mass advertising to endorse the use of pure, light wines as a health elixir.

The police manhunt

Montague Druitt had been the subject of a police manhunt involving both French and English asylums – the police knew the killer was an English gentleman but did not have his real name.

Montague John Druitt

Montague John Druitt by William Savage, c. 1875-76 (Credit: Courtesy of the Warden and Scholars of Winchester College).

The killer’s older brother, William Druitt, and his cousin, Reverend Charles Druitt, had initially placed Montague at great expense in a plush, progressive asylum at Vanves, a few miles outside of Paris.

Unfortunately one of the male nurses, being English-born, perfectly understood the patient’s confessions. Hoping to cash in on the reward offered by the British government, he alerted the local police, and so the barrister had to scramble back to London before the imminent arrival of Scotland Yard detectives.

The family next placed Montague in an asylum at Chiswick run by equally enlightened physician brothers, the Tukes. Nonetheless, the fast-closing police net – one that was methodically checking every recent admission at English private asylums – led to his suicide in the adjacent Thames River.

In 1891, when Macnaghten learned the truth from the Druitt family, he also discovered that the police had made a fatal blunder: they had earlier arrested a bloodstained Montague in Whitechapel the night he murdered two women. Intimidated by his class and pedigree, they had let him go – probably with an apology.

Jack the Ripper

An illustration of the discovery of a female torso in the basement of the Norman Shaw Building in 1888 (Credit: Illustrated Police News newspaper).

Members of the Druitt family were aware of the shocking truth because “Montie” had made a full confession to his clergyman cousin, the Rev Charles, a Dorset vicar and the son of the famous Dr. Robert Druitt.

Rev Druitt subsequently tried to reveal the truth to the public via his brother-in-law, also a clergyman, in 1899.

Fact vs. fiction

Jack the Ripper

The Illustrated Police News – 13 October 1888 (Credit: Public domain).

By far the biggest misconception is that “Jack the Ripper” is one of history’s great unsolved true crime mysteries. In fact, the murderer was identified (by Macnaghten) in 1891 and the solution was shared with the public from 1898, three years before Queen Victoria’s death.

Yet, not only was the deceased killer’s name withheld to protect the family from disgrace, he was also turned into a middle-aged surgeon in order to misdirect the press and public.

This was done to also shield the reputation of a close friend of Macnaghten’s, Colonel Sir Vivian Majendie, the Chief of Explosives at the Home Office who was related to the Druitt clan via the marriage of a relative (Isabel Majendie Hill had married Rev Charles Druitt).

Jack the Ripper Punch

“Blind man’s buff”: Cartoon by John Tenniel criticising the police’s alleged incompetence, September 1888 (Credit: Punch magazine).

All of this extraordinary knowledge, about which the public knew only the tip of the iceberg, was lost by the 1920s with the death of Macnaghten and the upper-class friends who knew the truth.

The entire case was subsequently and mistakenly rebooted as a mystery – one that had allegedly baffled everybody at Scotland Yard.

What remained embedded in popular culture was half of the original solution that had once been known to millions of people prior to the First World War: the bloodthirsty murderer had been an English gentleman (depicted by a legion of illustrators as sporting a top hat and carrying a medical bag).

The forgotten half of the solution by the 1920s was that “Jack” had committed suicide in a river as a police manhunt closed around his neck.

The fiction stuck around, to the detriment of the facts.

The cover-up

Macnaghten memorandum Jack the Ripper

A page from Melville Macnaghten’s 1894 memorandum in which Druitt is named (Credit: Metropolitan Police Service).

Montague John Druitt’s name finally became known to the public in 1965, via a long -hidden memorandum written by Sir Melville Macnaghten, who died in 1921.

His sleight of hand in the same document; of turning legal eagle Druitt into a surgeon was misunderstood as an “error” made by an under-informed, toff-born bureaucrat.

Rejecting the drowned gentleman solution opened the way for researchers to go hurtling off on multiple and competing paths.

All were dead-ends as they hung from the same slender thread – that when it came to Mr. M. J. Druitt’s double life as a serial killer, the hands-on and highly regarded Sir Melville Macnaghten was too incompetent to even learn what the killer had done for a living.

“Montie” and the Establishment

A graduate of Winchester and Oxford, and a paid up member of the Conservative Party, Montague Druitt at one time joined the multitude of fellow Oxonians engaged in rescue work amongst the poor and destitute of London’s East End.

A number of events in his life saw Druitt quickly unravel in that autumn of 1888 and although he resided in Blackheath – and thus could have murdered poor women anywhere in London – he persisted in returning to commit his crimes in the worst slum in London known as “the evil, quarter mile”.

Jack the Ripper newspaper

Newspaper broadsheet referring to the Whitechapel murderer (later known as “Jack the Ripper”) as “Leather Apron”, September 1888 (Credit: British Museum).

George Bernard Shaw was not alone in 1888 in noticing how these grim murders generated an overdue amount of attention in press coverage and public attitudes towards the poor. The victims were at last considered not as sex-obsessed, moral failures but as people already ruined by scandalous social neglect.

Commendably the Old Etonian smoothie, Sir Melville Macnaghten revealed an unwanted truth to fellow members of the so-called “better classes” – that the foul murderer had not been some loathsome alien from the depths, but rather an Englishman, a gentile, a gentleman and a professional.

“One of us”, like it or lump it.

Jonathan Hainsworth is an Ancient and Modern History teacher of 30 years experience, whose research on “Jack the Ripper” found that a Metropolitan Police Chief had solved the case.

Christine Ward-Agius is a researcher and artist who spent many years working for an Australian Government program to empower sole parents via education, training and employment. The Escape of Jack the Ripper is published by Amberley Books.

Escape of Jack the Ripper

Christine Ward-Agius and Jonathan Hainsworth