The University of Iowa

Exploring criminology's mysteries in London

June 6th, 2014
girl crossing abbey road

Crossing Abbey Road while exploring London

By Amanda Bartlett*

Our trip has been filled to the brim with breathtaking tours offering us a take on London’s most popular attractions.

However, things shifted a bit when we gathered on a cobbled stone road, just as the sun began to set for the evening. Rather than giggles and an overall uplifting vibe, the nervous tension and quickening heartbeats rose from our group.


Our very feet stood on the sites of some of the most gruesome and mysteriously unsolved murders of all time – by none other than Jack the Ripper.

For those unfamiliar with him, Jack the Ripper was an unidentified serial killer who was active in the impoverished areas of Whitechapel in 1888. The name originates from a letter historians believe to have been a hoax made by a journalist attempting to heighten the story, however, he is also referred to as the Whitechapel Murderer as well as the Leather Apron.

old letter

Hoax letter written by a journalist posing as Jack the Ripper
old building that says Women

A lodging house for women in impoverished areas to sleep

Historians narrowed the murders down to one man due to his grisly signature method of mutilating women – particularly female prostitutes – by cutting their throats, removing, and even stealing their internal organs. This led to theories that speculated the killer might have had some sort of doctoral or surgical knowledge. Connections between murders intensified when a man named George Lusk, of the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, received an anonymous letter including half of a preserved human kidney. Due to the unmistakingly violent nature of these murders, the unknown killer is known as Jack the Ripper to this day.

Our tour began on Osborne Street, where the murder of Emma Smith took place – a prelude to the terror that would ensue. She was viciously attacked, and though she survived and managed to make it back to the lodging house where she stayed, Smith fell into a coma and died the next morning due to her injuries.

women speaking in front of brick building

The next stop at Gunthorpe Street is what many experts claim to be the very first murder that took place. In the early hours of the night, a resident of a nearby building heard shouts of “Murder!” but issues of domestic violence were common in that area. Hours later, her body was discovered on the first flight of stairs.

The Frying Pan Pub was not only where victim Mary Ann Nichol’s body was found in the road, but also a landmark that offered insight into the struggle of the area at the time. Many poor citizens paid a penny per evening to sleep in wooden coffins when they could not afford to live anywhere else.

Other locations visited included the murder sites of Annie Chapman at Hanbury Street, and also the double-murder of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddows – the murders that could have revealed the identity of the Ripper. During the murder of Stride, he was interrupted, prompting him to fulfill his duty on a new victim entirely, narrowly missing being seen by passerby.

The final murder took place on Dorset Street, and was perhaps the most gruesome of all murders committed by the Ripper. Mary Kelly’s body was found by her landlord John McCarthy, who described the scene as “…more like the work of a devil than the work of a man’s.” To this day, the police photo is still disturbing to some.

Who was Jack the Ripper? Why did he commit these murders? Will we ever find out? Unfortunately, with the lack of forensic knowledge we have today, the answer is no. However, historians such as our guide Lindsay Siviter, continue to seek out answers, and have even discovered the gravesites of some of the original murders.

Perhaps, with our knowledge on criminology, we could be the next.

*Amanda is a freshman from Pleasant Hill, Iowa, majoring in journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa. She is currently studying abroad on the summer program Crime and Justice in Britain.