Was Jack the Ripper Jewish?

In saying that he was a Polish Jew I am merely stating a definitely ascertained fact.” [1].

Sir Robert Anderson wrote this sentence on page 138 of his 1910 memoir The Lighter Side of My Life. Its context may be found in a preceding paragraph:

And the conclusion we came to was that he and his people were certain low-class Polish Jews; for it is a remarkable fact that people of that class in the East End will not give up one of their own number to Gentile justice. And the result proved that our diagnosis was right on every point. For I may say at once that ‘undiscovered murders’ are rare in London, and the ‘Jack the Ripper’ crimes are not within that category.”[2] (boldface added)

Anderson was named Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of London’s Metropolitan Police on August 31, 1888. At about 3:45 that same morning, the body of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols (still barely breathing) was discovered lying on the sidewalk of a short narrow thoroughfare called Bucks Row.

Eight days later, on the same day the mutilated body of Annie Chapman had been found in the rear yard of a house at 29 Hanbury Street, Anderson would begin an enforced restorative vacation in Switzerland. He would not return to London until after the murders of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes on the morning of September 30. Six days later, Anderson would assume full control of the investigation of these four (and counting) murders.[3] In the interim, however, Anderson had named Chief Inspector Donald Sutherland Swanson day-to-day director of the investigation into the killer who later that month would be given the name “Jack the Ripper.”

Soon after the publication of his memoir, Anderson presented Swanson with a copy. At some point, Swanson penciled his own commentary in the margins of page 138 (which continued onto the book’s blank back pages). In what would become known as the “Swanson marginalia,” the former Chief Inspector described an unhesitating identification of a Jack the Ripper suspect by “the only person who ever had a good view of the murderer,”[4] before ruefully noting that the witness refused to

“…give evidence against him because the suspect was also a Jew and also because the evidence would convict the suspect, and witness would be the means of murderer being hanged which he did not wish to be left on his mind.”[5]

Swanson goes on to describe (somewhat erroneously, as it turned out) how the identification took place, followed by the suspect’s subsequent internment in, first, Stepney Workhouse, then Colney Hatch, where he soon died.

The final words of the Swanson marginalia are “Kosminski was the suspect.”[6]

This was not the first mention of a Polish Jew named Kosminski as a top Ripper suspect. In 1959, typed memoranda written by Sir Melville Leslie Macnaghten, Assistant Commissioner of the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of Scotland Yard during the investigation (which was officially closed in 1892) were unearthed. In the memoranda (three versions of which have been discovered), he lists three possible suspects, one of them being “Kosminski, a Polish Jew.”

Pioneering research in the mid-1980s would lead Martin Fido to uncover a Polish-born 23-year-old Jewish barber named Aaron Kosminski as the likeliest match to the suspect alluded to by Anderson, Swanson and Macnaghten. Interestingly, Fido himself would ultimately assert that Jack the Ripper was really a man named “David Cohen” who had been confused with Aaron Kosminki[7]. Opinions continue to fluctuate about the viability of Kosminski as Jack the Ripper, with Robert House’s 2011 book Jack the Ripper and the Case for Scotland Yard’s Prime Suspect[8] an excellent summary of what little is known about Aaron Kosminski[9].

Kosminski book.JPG

Lost in the dispute about names and evidence, however, is this simple fact: three key on-the-scene investigators and one contemporary investigator believed that Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

**********

Just bear with me as I veer into the personal.

As I have noted previously, I was raised Jewish. More to the point, I am the (adopted) son of a woman and a man raised in the mid-20th-century Jewish enclave of West Philadelphia, both of whose fathers were born in the Pale of Settlement, one in what is now Poland and the other in what is now Ukraine.

That I now identify as a “Jewish-raised Atheist” testifies to the conclusion I reached after an adulthood immersed in epistemology: organized religion is not my cup of coffee[10].

Nonetheless, I am proud of my Jewish heritage (even if I no longer practice “Judaism”), even more so as I write my book. Intended initially to trace the genesis of my love of film noir, it will now include opening chapters detailing the immigration of four Jewish families from the Pale of Settlement to Philadelphia between 1893 and 1912. Because I realized I cannot understand my childhood (and attendant immersion in detective fiction, Charlie Chan and “classic” black-and-white films) without understanding how David Louis and Elaine (Kohn) Berger came to be living in Havertown (a middle-class suburb of Philadelphia) in the mid-1960s. And once you start peeling that particular onion…

At the same time, I consider myself an amateur Ripperologist. It is thus not surprising that in what will probably be Chapter 2, I find myself describing late-19th-century Jewish migration to the East End of London:

Ultimately, 100,000 of these Jewish emigrants landed in the crowded slums of the East End of London[11]. At first treated with sympathy, native-born Londoners’ feelings soured as Jewish immigrants soon became the majority in a number of areas, particularly the southwest section (NewTown, Spitalfields) centered on the intersection of Commercial Road, Commercial Street East and the Whitechapel High Road[12]. The established, assimilated Jewish authorities of London were also wary of this immigrant influx, fearing that these uneducated peasant Jews would cast their own community in a poor light, even though, as I have noted, while they may have been impoverished, they were also literate enough to support a wide range of newspapers and works of literature. The alienation of native British Jews from their own Jewishness (stemming from their recent fight for emancipation from anti-Jewish statutes) has been described as their “Anglicization”[13] and it led the arriving Jewish immigrants of the 1880s to establish dozens of new, traditional synagogues in the East End and elsewhere. Soon, there was at least one synagogue on nearly every street in that area.[14]

Anti-Semitic feeling reached a boiling point in the late summer and early fall of 1888, when a series of brutal murders came to be attributed to the Whitechapel Fiend and, later, Jack the Ripper. One of the first people to be publicly accused of committing the murders was a local Jewish butcher named John Pizer, aka Leather Apron, who was arrested on September 10, 1888. Quickly establishing his innocence, he noted that he had not left his house for days for fear of being torn to pieces by an angry mob[15].

In other words, it is impossible to separate Jack the Ripper from the increasingly visible Jewish immigrant population of the East End. As of 1888, 45-50,000 Jews (9-10% of the total population) lived in the East End. If you assume, as I do, that Jack the Ripper lived in geographic proximity to his crime scenes, there is (as a sort of baseline estimate) roughly a 1-in-10 chance he was Jewish.

You also cannot separate Jack the Ripper from the appalling conditions prevailing in his killing fields. It is no accident that Paul Begg opens Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History this way:

During the 1880s the East End became the focus of a great many general anxieties about unemployment, overcrowding, slum dwellings, disease and gross immorality. It was feared that the unwashed masses would tumble out of their dark alleys and bleak hovels, sweep beyond their geographical containment and submerge civilized society. A working class uprising and revolution was an imagined reality that waited just around the corner. Jack the Ripper gave those fears substance and form, flesh and bone, because Jack the Ripper was a product of ‘the netherworld’ who could—and in one case fractionally did—move out of the warrens of hovels and alleys into the civilized city. And if Jack the Ripper could do it, so could the diseased savages themselves, espousing socialism, demanding employment and fair wages, education and acceptable housing, and bringing an end to the world as the Victorian middle classes knew it.”[16]

Much of the socialism being preached in the East End resulted from the writing and agitation of recent Jewish immigrants, as I observe in “Chapter 2”:

As I noted above, the Pale of Settlement served as an incubator for a variety of socialist and other pro-worker movements. Morris Winchevsky, born Leopold Benzion Novokhovitch in the Pale of Settlement city of Kovno, in what is now Lithuania, founded the radical socialist Arbeter Fraint (Worker’s Friend) newspaper in London in 1885. The editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint were housed in the rear of the IWEA [International Workingmen’s Educational Association, founded in 1884], also known as the Berner Street Club. The IWEA was a central meeting place for the newly-radicalized Jews of the East End, both native-born and recently-arrived. In fact, on the night before the murder of Liz Stride, a man named Morris Eagle led a discussion entitled “Why Jews Should Be Socialists.”[17]

And here we come to the crux of the matter—the morning of the “double event.”

**********

At 12:45 am on the morning of September 30, a Hungarian Jew named Israel Schwartz turned from Commercial Street into Berner Street. At the gateway to 40 Berner Street, he saw a man stop to speak to a woman standing there. The man was about 30 years old, 5’5” tall and broad-shouldered, with a fair complexion, dark hair, small brown moustache and full face. He wore a dark jacket over dark trousers and a black cap with a peak; he held nothing in his hands. As he was trying to pull the woman into the street, he turned her around and threw her down on the footway of the gate; the woman screamed—though not loudly—three times.

Schwartz, who spoke little English, wanted to avoid this tussle, so he crossed to the opposite side of the street. There he saw a man standing in the shadows, lighting a clay pipe. This second man was about 35 years old, 5’11” with a fresh complexion and light brown hair; he wore a dark overcoat and an old black hard felt hat with a wide brim.

As Schwartz crossed the street, the first man called out “Lipski,” but whether he was addressing Schwartz or the man with the pipe, we do not know. Later that morning, Schwartz would tell police officers he did not know whether the two men were together or even knew each other. He would also identify the body of Elizabeth Stride as the woman he had seen.

Once the first man called out “Lipski,” Schwartz walked away. The second man began to follow him, and Schwartz ran as far as a nearby railway arch; the man did not follow him that far. Schwartz then told his story to the police, which was summarized by Chief Inspector Swanson.[18]

Stepping back a moment…on June 28, 1887, a 22-year-old Polish Jew named Israel Lipski had been arrested for killing a young Jewish woman named Miriam Angel by pouring nitric acid down her throat. Lipski had been found under her bed with traces of the same acid in his mouth. Protesting his innocence (and with no motive offered by the prosecution), he was sentenced to death; he finally confessed on the morning he was hung[19]. At that point, the name “Lipski” became a sort of casual anti-Semitic insult.

Back on Berner Street, the 9-12-foot-wide gateway at number 40 was the entrance to a passageway called Dutfield’s Yard. It was adjacent to the building housing the IWEA (aka Berner Street Club). Only a few hours earlier, Morris Eagle had lectured in that same building on why Jews should be socialists.

For the previous six months, a Jewish trader of cheap jewelry named Louis Diemschutz had served as the club’s Steward. At 1 am, just 15 minutes after Israel Schwartz’s encounter with the two men and a woman, Diemschutz turned his pony-drawn cart into Dutfield’s Yard. Something made the pony shy to the left; when Diemschutz touched what we thought was a pile of mud with the handle of his whip, he had discovered the body of Elizabeth Stride.[20] And after Diemschutz ran into 40 Berner Street for help, it was Morris Eagle who brought the first two police constables to Dutfield’s Yard.

Whether or not the man Schwartz saw grappling with the woman was Jack the Ripper, he was unlikely to have been Jewish. In fact, I have always believed he called out “Lipski” to the second man as a prelude to a form of anti-Semitic bullying; one can see the two men walking away laughing almost immediately[21]. It also does not seem credible to me that the man with (possibly) Elizabeth Stride would then kill her in the same place he had just been seen by Schwartz and the man with the clay pipe. Curiously, there is no record of Israel Schwartz giving evidence at the inquest into the death of Elizabeth Stride, though it may have been given in secret[22].

Elizabeth Stride was not abdominally- and genitally-mutilated the way other canonical victims of Jack the Ripper (Nichols, Chapman, Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly, the latter on November 9) were, suggesting either that she was not actually a victim of Jack the Ripper or that he was interrupted by Diemschutz before he could do so.

Thirty minutes after the discovery of the body of Elizabeth Stride, Police Constable (PC)

Edward Watkins walked through Mitre Square, in the City of London (and thus outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police), and saw nothing out of the ordinary[23]. Five minutes later, at 1:35 am, three Jewish men—Joseph Lawende, Joseph Hyam Levy and Harry Harris—left the Imperial Club[24], a short distance away from
Church Passage, the entrance to Mitre Square. Levy had earlier remarked that Mitre Square should be watched, presumably because untoward things happened there.

Walking by the darkened Church Passage, the three friends saw a woman (who they later felt certain was Catherine Eddowes[25]) standing there with a man. Lawende, who was walking a bit in front of Levy and Harris, passed within nine or 10 feet of the couple, and he glanced briefly at them. He later described the man as about 30 years old, 5’9” tall, with a fair complexion and a small light moustache; he looked ‘rather rough and shabby,’ and he wore a cloth cap with a cloth peak. Other than the four-inch difference in height, this description is broadly similar to that given of “Man 1” by Schwartz. That said, the description would have fit many men in the area. Meanwhile, Lawende would repeatedly assert his inability to identify the man again[26].

The other two men paid little attention to the couple, although Levy was quoted as telling Harris, “I don’t like going home by myself when I see these sorts of characters about. I’m off.”[27]

Five minutes later, PC James Harvey saw and heard nothing standing on the edge of Mitre Square at the end of Church Passage, though Mitre Square was not lit. The couple seen by the three Jewish friends was gone (or hiding in the gloom).

But five minutes after THAT, at 1:45 am, PC Watkins walked through Mitre Square again. And that is how he found the viciously mutilated body of Catherine Eddowes.

Jack the Ripper may thus have been seen by as many as four Jewish men between 12:45 and 1:35 am on the morning of September 30, 1888. One of them was called an anti-Semitic epithet a few yards from the rear entrance of a club for Jewish socialists, and another Jewish man would find the body of Elizabeth Stride lying near that same entrance.

And the morning was not yet over.

At 2:55 am, PC Alfred Long walked down Goulston Street on his beat[28]. He had done so 25 minutes earlier, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. This time, however, he saw a piece of bloody apron lying near a stairway leading to 108-119 Wentworth Model Dwellings. The near-universal consensus among Ripperologists is that this was a piece of Catherine Eddowes’ apron, which her killer had cut off and used to wipe his bloody hands and knife[29].

PC Long also observed writing in white chalk on the wall where the piece of apron was found. He recorded it as “The Juwes are the men That Will not be Blamed for nothing.”[30] As Jakubowski and Braund put it, “There has been a great deal of dispute over the meaning of the message, because it is not clear if the Jews should be blamed or excluded from the murders or whether the word ‘Juwes’ actually means ‘Jews.’” Nonetheless, rather than wait for sufficient light to photograph the graffito, a possible clue, fears of resulting anti-Semitic rioting led then-Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Charles Warren to order its erasure at about 5:30 am.

Even if Jack the Ripper stood next to that wall while he wiped his hands and/or blade, it is not plausible to me that—knowing members of both the Metropolitan AND City Police were scouring the area—he would then take the time to write an obscure message. Nonetheless, somebody took the time to write that putatively anti-Semitic graffito shortly before 2:55 that morning.

There is one final “Jewish connection” to Jack the Ripper.

At 6 pm on November 12, 1888, three days after the unspeakably savage murder of Mary Jane Kelly in her tiny room at 13 Miller’s Court, 26 Dorset Street,[31] a friend of hers named George Hutchinson (who had not given evidence at the inquest, held earlier that day) walked into Commercial Street Police Station to give a statement. At about 2 am on the morning of Kelly’s death, he had seen her talking to a man near the Dorset Street entrance to Miller’s Court. In his remarkably detailed description, Hutchinson noted the man “…wore a very thick gold chain, white linen collar, black tie with horse shoe pin, respectable appearance, walked very sharp, Jewish appearance. Can be identified.”[32] (boldface added)

Hutchinson, who was himself seen watching the entrance to Miller’s Court at 2:45 am, may have invented the wealthy Jewish-appearing man to cover his own presence near the crime scene. But even if he did see such a man, he was unlikely to have been Jack the

Ripper, as the best estimates put Kelly’s death at between 4:00 and 5:45 am; it is extremely unlikely the “john” would have had sex with Kelly (a prostitute like the preceding four victims) in her room then waited there for two or three hours to kill her.

Mary Jane Kelly is the last of the five canonical victims (though I personally include Martha Tabram [or Turner], killed on a stairwell in George Yard Buildings on the morning of August 7, 1888 as well) of Jack the Ripper, although Alice McKenzie (July 17, 1889) and Frances Coles (February 13, 1891) are sometimes included.

For what it’s worth, not one purported victim of Jack the Ripper was Jewish.

**********

For the record, I have absolutely no idea what Jack the Ripper’s real name was, although “a Polish Jew named something like Kosminski” is one of more plausible suspects of the hundreds put forward, if only because of the writings of Anderson, Macnaghten and Swanson[33]. For some perspective, John J. Eddleston’s indispensable Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia lists 113 suspects—including a catch-all “Polish Jew” and “Unknown Male” (rated a “5,” meaning “a strong possibility” that someone not yet named was Jack the Ripper). For context, Aaron Davis Cohen (the real name of Fido’s suspect David Cohen) is listed as a “4” (a very good possibility) as is another East End Jewish man named Nathan Kaminsky (who may or may not have been Aaron Davis Cohen). Aaron Kosminksi is rated lower, at “3” (a reasonable possibility), while “Polish Jew” is rated a “2” (a remote possibility).

Moreover, the perceived certainty about Kosminski is undercut by Macnaghten himself, as he names two other likely suspects (a barrister named Montague John Druitt and a “mad Russian doctor” named Michael Ostrog). And other high-ranking officials had their own preferred suspects. Secret Department[34] Chief Inspector John George Littlechild, in a 1913 letter, would cite an American “doctor” named Francis Tumblety as “to my mind a very likely suspect.”[35] And Inspector Frederick George Abberline, one of the top officers assigned to investigate these murders, ultimately decided a convicted wife poisoner named Severin Klosowski (aka George Chapman) was Jack the Ripper.

Other Jewish residents of the East End have been put forward as suspect, meanwhile, including Hyam Hyams.

And the suspects keep coming. In 2007, retired CID homicide detective Trevor Marriott somewhat fancifully named Carl Feigenbaum (who also went by many other names).[36] This video makes a somewhat tortured case for a mortuary attendant named Robert Mann (who gave evidence at the inquest into the death of “Polly” Nichols), while this video makes an intriguing—if highly circumstantial—case that Jack the Ripper was a carman named Charles Alan Cross (aka Charles Alan Lechmere)—the first of two men (along with another carman named Robert Paul) to find the body of “Polly” Nichols![37]

My point was simply to delineate the nexus between Jack the Ripper’s crimes, the increasingly Jewish (and socialist) character of the East End of London in 1888, ensuing anti-Semitic backlash and the roles played by numerous Jewish residents (including, perhaps, Jack the Ripper himself) in the discovery and investigation of the murders.

Until next time…

POSTSCRIPT: In separate books in the 1990s, Paul Harrison and Bruce Paley each argued for the candidacy of Mary Jane Kelly’s former lover and cohabitator Joseph Barnett; the circumstantial evidence is interesting although the ascribed motive is…creative.

In 1937, my great-aunt Rose Goldstein married a man named Joseph Barnett Spungen, who had been born in Leeds, in the north of England, in 1908. (If the name Spungen sounds familiar, it is because this was his brother’s granddaughter). I always do a double-take when I see his first and middle names.

I do not really think there is any connection between Whitechapel’s Joseph Barnett and my mother’s first cousin by marriage…but I will keep interrogating the extant records nonetheless.

[1] Anderson, Sir Robert. 1910. The Lighter Side of My Official Life. London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, pg. 138 (Quoted in Begg, Paul. 2003. Jack the Ripper: The Definitive History. London, UK: Pearson Education Limited, pp. 268.

[2] Ibid, pg. 267.

[3] Much of the information in these paragraphs comes from Eddleston, John J. 2001.Jack the Ripper: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, Inc. as well as my own deep familiarity with the details of the case.

[4] Begg, pg. 267-69.

[5] Ibid, pg. 269.

[6] Ibid, pg. 269.

[7] An excellent summation can be found in Fido, Martin. 1999. “David Cohen and the Polish Jew Theory,” pp. 164-86 in Jakubowski, Maxim and Braund, Nathan, eds. 1999. The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.

[8] New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. See especially Chapters 17 and 20-26.

[9] Who, for example died on March 24, 1919, not sometime in the 1890s as Swanson seemed to think.

[10] I am not much of a fan of tea, either.

[11] https://www.jewisheastend.com/history.html

[12] http://www.jewishmuseum.org.uk/life-in-the-jewish-east-end

[13] http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/london

[14] https://www.jewisheastend.com/history.html

[15] Begg, pg. 157.

[16] Ibid. pg. 1. Carrying this argument to an absurd, pointed extreme, George Bernard Shaw wrote a letter on September 24, 1888 to The Star newspaper which began, “Will you allow me to make a comment on the success of the Whitechapel murderer [the name “Jack the Ripper” was still three days away] in calling attention for a moment to the social question? […] Private enterprise has succeeded where Socialism failed. While we conventional Social Democrats were wasting our time on education, agitation, and organization, some independent genius has taken the matter in hand, and by simply murdering and disembowelling [sic] four women, converted the proprietary press to an inept sort of communism.” Quoted in Begg, pg. 2.

[17] Ibid., pp. 171-74.

[18] Preceding four paragraphs from Begg, pg. 179 and Eddleston, pg. 114.

[19] Begg, pg. 139.

[20] Ibid,, pg. 174.

[21] The counter-argument that he was attempting to distract from his own Jewishness by calling out “Lipski” has always seemed far-fetched to me as well.

[22] Or Schwartz was Swanson’s Jewish witness, who refused to testify against a fellow Jew.

[23] The next few paragraphs from Begg, pp. 193-94.

[24] At 16-17 Duke Street, now Duke’s Place.

[25] This despite the fact Lawende only saw the woman’s back. The identification seems to be have been based upon the black jacket and bonnet she was wearing and, I surmise, the fact she was a few inches shorter.

[26] Which again begs the question whether HE was Swanson’s reluctant Jewish witness.

[27] Begg, pg. 193. Begg goes on to say that he—and contemporary observers—felt that Levy was being evasive.

[28] The ensuing few paragraphs are drawn from Jakubowski and Braund, pg. 41.

[29] It matched a gap in the apron Eddowes was wearing when her body was discovered.

[30] The City of London police believed the graffito read, “The Juwes are not the men That will be Blamed for nothing.”

[31] The crime scene photograph of what was left of the approximately 25-year-old Irish-born Kelly is the ghastliest thing I have ever seen.

[32] Eddleston, pp. 70-71. Eddleston actually believes Hutchinson is the most likely suspect, as he details on pp. 275-84.

[33] According to the invaluable on-line Casebook: Jack the Ripper, “By some counts, more than 500 individuals have been put forward by various experts, historians and theorists – most based on flimsy or non-existent evidence.”

[34] Later known as “Special Branch,” this was the unit devoted to preventing Irish (or Fenian) terrorism. Eddleston, pg. 126.

[35] Quoted in Jakubowski and Braund, pg. 100. An excellent analysis of Tumblety’s not-unreasonable candidacy is Evans, Stewart and Gainey, Paul. 1995.Jack the Ripper: First American Serial Killer. London, UK: Century Random House UK, Ltd. The edition I own is the 1998 paperback reprint published by Kodansha America, Inc.

[36] Marriott, Trevor. 2005. Jack the Ripper: The 21st Century Investigation. London, UK: John Blake Publishing, Ltd. Marriott did not actually name Feigenbaum until the 2007 paperback edition.

[37] The inevitable “well, maybe not” counter-argument may be found here.

3 thoughts on “Was Jack the Ripper Jewish?

    1. There are very few unassailable facts in the case. And even those are subject to interpretation (and misinterpretation). Skinner and Evans’ Jack the Ripper Companion is an excellent source of unfiltered information.

      Liked by 1 person

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