In 1888, a murderer – or murderers – struck in East London, killing several women in gruesome ways. The offender (if, indeed, it was only one) has never been caught, but his murders caught the public imagination at the time, and he continues to be written about, and theorised about.
For years afterwards, the subsequent murders of women would be reported in terms of whether they could be new victims of the same murderer – for example, in 1890, when Phoebe Hogg was found murdered near Hampstead, it was initially reported that she was an ‘unfortunate’ woman whose death had led people to fear that Jack the Ripper had started a new campaign of terror, but in north London this time, instead of east. In fact, Phoebe – and her baby daughter – had been killed by a woman: the lover of Phoebe’s husband (you can read my article on this case here).
But although the most famous of the Whitechapel Murders caused a panic around the capital, and beyond, others were gripped and excited, even, about the tales of terror, perhaps in the same way that those reading penny dreadfuls were both repelled and fascinated by crime and tales that were far from their own experiences. The fear surrounding the unknown killer also led more unscrupulous men to suggest that they were Jack, in order to instil that fear in others and make them do what they wanted.
This was certainly the case in Ilkeston, Derbyshire, in October 1888. By this time, four of the five canonical victims of the Whitechapel murderer had been killed, discovered, and written about in the national and provincial press – one more, Mary Jane Kelly, was to be killed the following month. No suspects had been identified; no arrests made. There was a very real concern that more women would be murdered.
In light of this charged atmosphere, at the Heanor Petty Sessions, miles away from East London’s gloom, a man was remanded into custody, on charges of drunkenness and robbery. He was asked his name, and in response, said it was ‘Jack the Ripper’.
The magistrates, who decided to charge him in the slightly more pleasant name of ‘John Rip’, heard that he had gone out into Ilkeston the previous Friday night, got drunk, and accosted a woman named Priscilla Bennett as she was on her way home. He then threatened to ‘Whitechapel her’ if she refused to give him money.
Priscilla replied that she had no money, and that if the man didn’t ‘go about his business’, she would scream for help. ‘Jack’ grabbed her, put his hand over her mouth, and took a shilling out of her hand – the only money she had actually had. He then ran off down the town’s Burn Street.
Apparently, the use of such a threat had been common in the Ilkeston area over the previous days – a significant timeframe as two Ripper victims had been murdered just a week before this ‘Jack the Ripper’ appeared in court. Violent men now had a handy phrase to threaten women with – give us your money, or we’ll murder you like the Ripper murdered his victims – and to ‘Whitechapel’ someone became synonymous with a particularly unpleasant death.
And what happened to the Ilkeston ‘Ripper’? He was found guilty of theft, and sent to gaol for three months with hard labour. As he was led to the cells, this pleasant individual shouted, “I’ll do it, and blow her brains out afterwards” – failing, in the process, to understand the methods used by his more famous namesake.
Story taken from the Leeds Mercury of 9 October 1888, the Derbyshire Courier of 9 October 1888, the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of 12 October 1888 and the Derbyshire Advertiser and Journal of 19 October 1888, all sourced from the British Newspaper Archive. Press coverage does not give a real name for ‘Jack the Ripper’, and no alias of ‘John Rip’ is listed in the online Derbyshire Calendar of Prisoners.