Michael Connor

Jack the Ripper: the prime suspect

This Whitechapel Murderer suspect was a part of the East End streetscape and he has a name: Charles Allen Lechmere. He was discovered beside the still warm body of murdered prostitute Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols. And he walked away. 

[First published as "The Strange Case of Jack the Ripper" in Quadrant, March 2010]

There had been murderers before, and then there was Jack. Except, of course, there was no Jack the Ripper. There were murders—ripped prostitutes attested to that—but the business name was probably a journalist’s invention. The name caught on and inspired red-ink-imbibing, red-pillar-box-filling writers (many of them women) who sent out hundreds of police-troubling letters composed of ravings and penny-dreadful nightmares. Jack has inspired social reformers, criminologists, get-rich-quick writers and publishers, film-makers, fanatics and seekers of truth. Yet this franchise for murder may be based on simple, clumsy, violent crimes committed by an ordinary, banal man who could have been arrested in 1888, tried and executed.

At Christmas time in 1887 the first Sherlock Holmes story had been published, and the Empire had recently celebrated Queen Victoria’s fifty years on the throne. As corpses accumulated in the East End in the autumn of 1888, the American actor Richard Mansfield was entertaining theatre audiences in the West End with The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Even reviewers shuddered and applauded:

Whenever Mr Mansfield becomes Hyde, his savage chuckles, his devilish gloating over evil, his malignant sarcasms, his fierce energy of hate and revelling in all sinful impulses, awaken strange sensations in the spectator, and the unearthly restless figure of this variation upon Frankenstein’s fatal handiwork takes a powerful hold on the imagination. Hyde, in brief, in Mr Mansfield’s hands, is a creation of genius.

Until the play closed his stage creation seemed locked in competition with that other “creation of genius”, Jack the Ripper, and perhaps the fiction of Hyde coloured nineteenth-century perceptions of what sort of monster would kill and mutilate cheap prostitutes. A middle- or upper-class madman eviscerating working-class victims seemed the ideal perpetrator. It played well in the popular press and suited the propaganda requirements of contemporary political activists and social reformers.

Modern Ripperology is a game. Choose a name, preferably of a top-hat sort of person, choose your clues and anyone could write a book proving that anyone possibly alive in 1888 was Jack or even Jill. Ripperology is a flawed discussion, and part of the reason is the poor state of the evidence. What we know of the murders depends on surviving official records and newspaper accounts. The information they carry often conflicts and the scientific conclusions they incorporate are often a grave concern. A “fact” rapidly dissolves when conflicting accounts are uncovered. Proving who the murderer was is probably impossible. Even if a signed confession came to light it would not be believed. Yet there is a solution to the mystery of the Whitechapel Murders which is even possibly true. It is unmysterious, unglamorous and ordinary—all the things that the legend of “Jack the Ripper” is not.

A case can be made against a particular individual who, unlike most of the modern suspects, is to be found in the contemporary records. One of the considerations of modern forensic investigations is that it is very possible that the name of the eventual perpetrator will be found to have been noted in the early stages of the police investigation. This suspect is not a gentleman murderer, for the killings were working-class murders. They were also brutal, careless and stupid. The murderer could, should have been arrested by contemporary police. Bad police work allowed him to walk away.

In this solution to the crimes it must be understood that some of these murders were night murders and some were morning murders and that behind the murders there was a workman’s timetable. They fit into a pattern of a particular life.

The East End was a tidal expanse covered and uncovered at different times of the day by rising and ebbing tides of human bodies. The streets were busy in the evenings as people washed backwards and forwards looking for or providing food, company, entertainment. In the early hours after midnight they emptied as people returned home, sought lodgings. After a period of quiet the flow began again as individual early workers left their beds and trudged towards their work places. Prostitution was interwoven into these tidal movements. Take away all preconceptions of Jack as man of the night chasing prostitutes in the shadow of rowdy public houses. See him and his victims as people being driven by these tides. The early morning is a key time, for some of these murders were of women involved in morning—not evening—prostitution. The victims were women who had struck out into the cold, early morning streets to earn pennies from men going to work. Their murderer was a workman.

This Whitechapel Murderer suspect was a part of the East End streetscape and he has a name: Charles Allen Lechmere. He was thirty-eight, and had a steady job, employed as a cart driver or carman at Pickfords in Broad Street. He was married and lived with his family at 22 Doveton Street, Mile End Old Town. At about 3.45 a.m. on the morning of Friday, August 31, 1888, he was discovered beside the still warm body of murdered prostitute Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols. And he walked away.

Lechmere appears in the opening pages of most books about the Ripper murders, yet you will not find his name in any one of them. When he appeared at the Nichols inquest he gave his name as Charles Allen Cross. Of such little importance is he that it was not until 2007 that it was established that his surname was Lechmere. It is as Charles Allen Lechmere that he appears in birth and death certificates, in census returns (except in 1861 when he was eleven years old), and on the birth, marriage and death certificates of his children. The surname Cross that he gave at the inquest was that of his policeman stepfather. This man, Charles Lechmere, could have been a murderer who hid in plain view. He died in the East End in 1920 of a cerebral haemorrhage, hardening of the arteries, and chronic bronchitis at the age of seventy-one.

The Whitechapel Murders mostly occurred in the area between his home in Doveton Street and his work at Broad Street. This does not automatically make him a suspect, for no doubt the same could be said of hundreds of other East Enders. The difference is that only Lechmere was discovered near the body of a victim.       

Robert Paul, also a cart driver, was hurrying to work on the morning of the Nichols murder. Soon after he left home, just before 3.45 a.m., he stepped into the most famous murder case in British history when he entered a narrow street called Bucks Row. In the darkness, forty yards ahead, he saw Lechmere. That evening a newspaper reporter interviewed him, before he had talked to the police, about what had happened:

It was exactly a quarter to four when I passed up Buck’s-row to my work as a carman for Covent-garden market. It was dark, and I was hurrying along, when I saw a man standing where the woman was. He came a little towards me, but as I knew the dangerous character of the locality I tried to give him a wide berth. Few people like to come up and down here without being on their guard, for there are such terrible gangs about. There have been many knocked down and robbed at that spot. The man, however, came towards me and said, ‘Come and look at this woman’.

The woman, they thought, was dead and they went on a little way before finding a policeman and reporting their find. The two men continued walking together to their separate jobs. Given that the injuries inflicted in later murders were more extensive it may be that the murderer had been interrupted, but Lechmere had neither seen someone leaving Bucks Row, nor had he heard anything. It is possible that he had just killed Nichols and was starting to cut her body when he heard Paul arriving at the top of Bucks Row.      

Lechmere’s innocence or guilt in the murder of Polly Nichols could be established if we knew with certainty what time he left Doveton Street. But this seems impossible. Paul said that he was in Bucks Row at 3.45 a.m. He seems convinced of the time and that time was generally agreed on by police witnesses. The walking time from Doveton Street to the murder site was about six minutes. Was Lechmere a Good Samaritan who had paused by a drunken or dead woman? Or was he a brutal murderer? Did he often stop to attend people he found sleeping rough on the streets he walked through?

And here, where exactitude is essential, the contemporary evidence is uncertain. The time Charles Lechmere left Doveton Street to walk to Broad Street is confused. Reporting evidence given by Lechmere at the inquest, the Times stated that he left home at 3.20 and arrived at Broad Street at 4.00 a.m. Obviously this is incorrect as he was in Bucks Row at 3.45 a.m. and could not have reached Broad Street, approximately thirty-four minutes away, by 4.00 a.m. However, if that statement gives the correct time that he left Doveton Street then he would have been at the murder scene at 3.26 and been alone with Nichols for almost twenty minutes. Other newspapers, reporting on the same inquest evidence, said he left home at 3.30 a.m. This also gave him nine or ten minutes to deal with Nichols before Paul entered Bucks Row. Those minutes were enough time for him to kill and cut. Whichever timing is correct, Lechmere should not have been in Bucks Row at 3.45 a.m. He should have been much further along his route to work.

If we consider the more extensive mutilations of the later murders, then if Lechmere was the murderer he was interrupted before his activities were completed. Hearing footsteps at the top of Bucks Row he moved away from the body and prepared himself to deal with whoever was walking towards him. He had two clear options: to flee, or stand back and act the part of the innocent discoverer of the body even as he was evaluating the situation and preparing himself to act decisively if the intruding stranger had witnessed too much. If Lechmere’s innocent behaviour as Paul approached was an exhibition of sang-froid then it was entirely consistent with the behaviour of the Whitechapel Murderer, who killed in public places where he was always in imminent danger of being caught.

Robert Paul finally gave his evidence to the resumed inquest in mid-September, some weeks after the murder. In this account the way in which the two men met could have an underlying hint of threat: “As witness approached him [Lechmere] he walked towards the pavement, and witness stepped on to the roadway in order to pass him. He then touched witness on the shoulder, and said, ‘Come and look at this woman here.’” Another way of behaving, and perhaps more natural, would have been for Lechmere to hail the approaching man in the darkness and reassure him of his intentions before he drew close.

After briefly examining Nichols, and not noticing that her throat had been cut, Paul and Lechmere walked to the end of Bucks Row and at a road junction informed a policeman on duty of their find. Before them lay two streets which both led towards Lechmere’s destination in Broad Street. On the left was Wentworth Street and on the right Hanbury Street. That morning Lechmere accompanied Robert Paul along Hanbury Street until Paul turned off to his own work. These routes and the times it is known that Lechmere was in the area place him in the vicinity when other murders of prostitutes occurred.

The killer who walked away from the body of Polly Nichols was unlikely to have been much marked with her blood. She had been killed, by knife wounds to the throat, before any mutilations were carried out. The absence of extensive blood stains was noted at the inquest by the examining doctor: “There was very little blood around the neck, and there were no marks of any struggle or of blood, as though the body had been dragged.” Only when the body was stripped at the mortuary were the extensive abdominal wounds discovered. If Lechmere’s clothes had been marked he may well have been wearing a sacking apron, which he wore to the inquest, and perhaps a few more stains would have passed unnoticed.

Some weeks earlier in August, Martha Tabram had been murdered in a brutal knife attack in a tenement building just off Wentworth Street. A week later Annie Chapman was butchered in Hanbury Street (the actual time of her murder is confused).

In these cases the murderer may have killed on his way to work, a proposition entirely feasible, as the career of Ted Bundy would suggest. A propensity for killing can be fitted around a normal life. A married, working-class murderer was limited in the privacy he had available and in the times in which he could kill. He lacked the leisure of the more fortunately situated Victorian murderers and murderesses. The violent and impulsive murders generally took seconds to commit, for the murderer killed and mutilated swiftly, and this was dictated by the time he had available to operate. In these deaths he was no bourgeois connoisseur lingering over his handiwork, and he probably took limited satisfaction from what he was doing. He killed in dark or dim conditions and the sight of the cuts his knife inflicted was generally hidden from him under the women’s dresses. This was not skill but butchery.

In this brief essay it is impossible to cover all the murders which fit into the timetable of the man from Pickfords. The three murders of Tabram, Nichols and Chapman occurred along routes known to have been taken or which could have been taken by the man who was discovered beside the body of Polly Nichols. Other murders associated with the Ripper could have been committed on his way back from work and on a public holiday.

Suggesting Lechmere as a suspect plays new light onto the murder of Elizabeth Stride. Her killing has always seemed a little out of the usual and doubts have been raised as to whether she really was a victim of the Whitechapel Murderer. The knifing was less enthusiastic than usual, though the killer may have been disturbed, and the geographic location was out of his usual killing area and presumably out of his “comfort zone”. However, it does make more sense if we consider that Lechmere had lived close to the murder scene for many years and had only recently moved to Doveton Street.

Lechmere was discovered near a body. The times he was on the streets corresponded with the times of other murders. His possible routes to and from work were close to other murder sites. In 1888 he should have been the prime suspect. That ordinary man in his sacking apron may have been someone quite different. At Polly Nichols’s inquest he claimed to have worked for Pickfords for twenty years. Who knows, he may have been travelling around the British Isles on a Pickfords van murdering and dropping bodies as he went. I wonder how he treated his horses?

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