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The Whitehall Mystery

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

At the time that Jack the Ripper was active, between August and November 1888, the mutilated remains of a woman were discovered in central London. Had Jack moved out of his hunting grounds in Whitechapel, or was another demented monster on the loose?

Body Parts Found

On September 11, 1888, a gruesome discovery was made on the River Thames embankment in Pimlico. The area was and is an upscale neighbourhood, unlike the grime and squalor of Whitechapel where Jack the Ripper plied his grim trade.

A right arm and shoulder had been found, but police at first seemed untroubled by the appearance. They put it down to a medical student prank, which, apparently, happened from time to time. Then, another arm turned up beside a road.

But the real alert came on October 2, 1888. A workman on a construction project entered an unfinished vault in which the torso of a woman was wrapped in cloth and tied up with string. Shortly thereafter, a sniffer dog found the lower part of a left leg.

The grisly remains turned up in the shadow of Jack the Ripper’s first four murders.

Taunting Police

The torso was discovered on the Thames Embankment where the new headquarters of the Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard, was being built. The location was taken to be a taunt to police by the killer: as much as to say “I’m so clever, I can hide a dismembered body right under your noses.”

Jack the Ripper was doing the same thing by writing letters. In one missive, he wrote “Catch me when you can.”

Several serial killers have adopted the same technique:

The first Zodiac Killer murdered five people in the San Francisco Bay area. He wrote 21 letters to the media in which he claimed he had killed 37 people. His carnage lasted through the 1960s and ‘70s and he was never apprehended.

New York’s David Berkowitz left a note at one murder scene saying “I am a monster. I am the ‘Son of Sam.’ ” He was caught in 1977 and is serving a prison sentence of 364 years.

The original New Scotland Yard that was built in 1888-89.

The original New Scotland Yard that was built in 1888-89.

Medical Examiner

The various body parts were taken to several medical professionals. They agreed the limbs and torso came from the same person, a woman of well nourished, sturdy construction of approximately 24 years of age.

Another finding was that the dissection had been carried out by a person with some medical knowledge. Investigators were coming to the same conclusion about Jack the Ripper; the dismemberment of his victims indicated an individual who knew something about human anatomy.

The head and other limbs were never located and the identity of the victim was never discovered.

Was it Jack?

As the Ripper was about his gruesome business at the same time, it was inevitable that the media would put him in the frame as a suspect.

It all happened at the same time. All the victims were women. All were dismembered by someone with medical knowledge. A clever killer would be likely to step out from his normal routine to throw investigators into confusion.

For whatever reasons (the historical record is silent), the police ruled out Jack the Ripper as a suspect. Most Ripperologists have taken the same approach. But there is a pattern; you just have to go back to 1873 to find it.

Earlier Murders

In September 1873, part of a female torso was found on the muddy banks of the River Thames near Battersea Pier, about two kilometres upstream from Whitehall. Over the next few days, other body parts started showing up. Police concluded that the victim had died as a result of blunt force trauma to her head, but they were unable to identify the woman.

A year later, the same gloomy scenario played itself out. Scattered female body parts were found floating in the Thames and the victim could not be identified. The only conclusion that could be reached was that there was “Willful murder against some person or persons unknown.”

Police patrol the Thames in about 1900.

Police patrol the Thames in about 1900.

The Torso Murders

On either side of the Whitehall mystery, two similar atrocities occurred. In May 1887, female body parts turned up in the Thames in Rainham, 17 miles to the east of Whitehall. Again, no identification.

Then, in June 1889, the now-familiar story played out again. However, this time police were able to identify the victim as 24-year-old Elizabeth Jackson. She was known to be a sex worker in London.

Were these “torso murders” the work of the same person behind the Whitehall mystery? If so, why the 14-year gap between murders? Was the perpetrator incarcerated for another crime and went back to his macabre activities upon release?

Was it all the work of one person, or several people? And why did the outrages stop? No one was ever caught and convicted for these deaths, so we’ll never know the answers to these questions.

Bonus Factoids

  • The last crime with a similar pattern to the others happened in September 1889 when a woman’s torso was found in Whitechapel. The corpse was never identified and, as it was located in Jack the Ripper’s territory, is sometimes tied to him. Others say it links Jack to the Thames River mysteries.
  • Historian Shane McCorristine says the dismemberment of victims goes back a long way and was often a feature of warfare and was surrounded by mythology. He writes that in modern times it can be viewed “as the desire of an abnormal individual or small group of abnormal individuals to desecrate the body or conceal the identity of the victim, and thereby the perpetrator/s.”
  • In 2017, Fantasy Flight Games launched a board game based on the Whitehall mystery, using that as its title.


© 2020 Rupert Taylor