Jack the Ripper is perhaps the most infamous and researched serial killer in history. Some of the most chilling examples of his handiwork are the photographs taken at the murder scene of Mary Jane Kelly, his fifth and perhaps final victim. These are essentially the only photos of a Ripper crime scene known to exist.
In 1888, an unknown man murdered poor and disenfranchised women in the East End of London, an over-crowded, poverty-stricken corner of the city. The press quickly dubbed the perpetrator “Jack the Ripper,” and the whole of London remained on edge while the police hunted for and failed to apprehend the wanted man. Jack the Ripper’s identity remains shrouded in mystery and will most likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Historians even have difficulty agreeing on the number of women he targeted. The so-called “canonical five” – the victims on whom most people agree – were Mary Ann "Polly" Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly.
The last of these five, Mary Jane Kelly, was killed in her room at 13 Miller's Court in the early hours of November 9, 1888. Though whether or not Kelly was Jack the Ripper’s final target is debatable, her body was actually photographed at the scene, unlike those of the other four women. While the photographs of the scene are quite graphic, they allow a clear historical understanding of Jack the Ripper's actions and of the tragic history of violence against women.
The photos of Kelly's body show that she was completely eviscerated and that some areas of flesh, such as her thigh, were cut to the bone.
Unlike the other canonical four, Kelly's face itself was slashed, rendering her unrecognizable; her ears, nose, and part of her forehead were removed. Her white blouse and her bed were soaked with blood, which was also found splattered on the walls and floor of her room.
The other four canonical victims – Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, and Catherine Eddowes – were photographed in the mortuary, usually after their wounds had been stitched back together. Kelly, however, was the only one to be photographed at the crime scene. Moreover, the photograph shows Kelly largely as she appeared to police, displaying the true horror of her demise.
Instead of relying on photographic evidence, newspapers often rendered sketches of the scenes when they published articles on the Ripper killings. Often, these drawings were highly stylized in order to sell more papers, and thus were highly inaccurate to the actual scenes. These sketches do, however, provide insight into how the incidents were presented to the public as events unfolded.
The mortuary photographs and those of Kelly's body are also noteworthy because they are the first photographic evidence of sex crimes.
When Kelly was found, parts of her body were strewn around the bed and neighboring table. Though detectives were able to locate the majority of her body parts, such as her breasts, liver, spleen, and uterus, one crucial part of Mary Jane Kelly was missing: the killer had left the scene with her heart. Similar behavior was noted at the sites of the other killings – one of Catherine Eddowes's kidneys was missing when her body was found.
All of the canonical five besides Kelly were found outdoors. Annie Chapman's body, for example, was found in the backyard of 29 Hanbury Street, and Catherine Eddowes met her end in Mitre Square. The public nature of these incidents was part of what made them truly terrifying to Londoners. Moreover, the dim gas lights that dotted the East End of London only provided about a 6-foot radius of light, offering a convenient cover of darkness for many evildoers.
Since Kelly was murdered in her own room at Miller's Court, many have speculated that the unparalleled privacy allowed Jack the Ripper to conduct his grisly work without the possibility of interruption. In fact, police assumed that Jack the Ripper had to flee Berner Street on September 30th before he was finished violating Elizabeth Stride's remains because he was "interrupted" by a passerby.