FROM HELL LETTER - DR OPENSHAW



On Friday 19th October 1888 The Star newspaper carried the following report on the piece of kidney that had accompanied the "From Hell" letter, which was sent to Mr George Lusk:-

The portion of the kidney which it enclosed has, according to the medical experts, been preserved for some time in spirits of wine. The person from whom it was taken was probably

ALIVE THREE WEEKS SINCE

a circumstance which fits in with the suggestion that the organ may have been taken from the body of the deceased woman Eddowes, murdered in Mitre-square. Another fact is that the kidney is evidently that of a person who had been a considerable drinker, as there were distinct marks of disease. The handwriting of the letter differs altogether from that of "Jack the Ripper," specimens of whose calligraphy were recently published. The writing is of an inferior character, evidently disguised, while the spelling, as will be seen, is indifferent.

There seems to be no room for doubt that what has been sent to Mr. Lusk is part of a human kidney, but nevertheless it may be doubted whether it has any serious bearing on the Mitre-square murder. The whole thing may possibly turn out to be a medical student's gruesome joke.

It Had Been Preserved in Spirits. Dr. Openshaw told a Star reporter to-day that after having examined the piece of kidney under the microscope he was of opinion that it was half of a left human kidney. He couldn't say, however, whether it was that of a woman, nor how long ago it had been removed from the body, as it had been preserved in spirits.

It is believed that the "revolting parcel" is not from the murderer, but is merely a medical student's practical joke.

The Metropolitan Police last night handed the piece of kidney over to the City Police on the assumption that if the whole thing is not, as is most likely, the disgusting trick of some practical joker, it relates to the Mitre-square crime.

The East London Advertiser on 20th October 1888 quoted Openshaw as saying that the kidney that accompanied the From Hell Letter was:-

"... a portion of a human kidney - a "ginny" kidney - that is to say, one that had belonged to a person who had drunk heavily. He was further of the opinion that it was the organ of a woman of about 45 years of age, and that it had been taken from the body within the last three weeks. It will be within public recollection that the left kidney was missing from the woman Eddowes, who was murdered and mutilated in Mitre-square..."

A MEDICAL STUDENT'S JOKE

From the outset it appears that the police were of the opinion that the kidney and the "From Hell" letter were, as The Star had suggested on 19th October, nothing more than a silly prank carried out by a medical student.

THE KIDNEY IS GIVEN TO THE CITY OF LONDON POLICE

As The Star mentioned, following Openshaw's examination of the kidney it was handed over to The City Police, in whose jurisdiction the murder of Catharine Eddowes had taken place.

CITY POLICE REPORT ON THE FROM HELL LETTER

On the 27th October Inspector James McWilliam of The City Police presented the first police report on the gruesome artefact:-

The kidney has been examined by Dr Gordon Brown who is of the opinion that it is human. Every effort is being made to trace the sender, but it is not desirable that publicity should be given to the doctor’s opinion, or the steps that are being taken inconsequence. It might turn out after all to be the act of a Medical Student who would have no difficulty in obtaining the organ in question.

SWANSON'S REPORT TO THE HOME OFFICE

Chief Inspector Swanson had held daily meetings with Inspector McWilliam since the arrival of the From Hell Letter and the portion of kidney and on 6th November 1888 he forwarded his report on the matter to the Home Office:-

The result of the combined medical opinion is that it is the kidney of a human adult, not charged with a fluid, as it would have been in the case of a body handed over for purposes of dissection to an hospital, but rather as it would be in the case where it was taken from the body not so destined. In other words similar kidneys might and could be obtained from any dead person upon whom a post mortem had been made from any cause by students or dissecting room porter.

NOW IMPOSSIBLE TO SAY

With the passage of more than 120 years and the disappearance of anything remotely associated with the portion of kidney (even the original of the "From Hell" letter has long since vanished) it is now almost impossible to establish with any degree of certainty whether or not the portion of kidney sent to Mr Lusk was part of the one removed from Catherine Eddowes by her murderer and we have little choice to rely upon the opinion of the doctors who were there at the time and had the opportunity to examine it.

CONTEMPORARY MEDICAL OPINION

The majority of those doctors seem to have been of the opinion that the "From Hell" Letter was a prank missive and that the accompanying kidney was a sick part of the hoax. This opinion appears to have been shared by the police officers.

MAJOR HENRY SMITH'S OPINION

The only dissenting police voice on the matter was that of Major Henry Smith, the acting City Commissioner, who later recalled in his memoirs:-

I made over the kidney to the police surgeon, instructing him to consult with the most eminent men in the Profession, and to send me a report without delay. I give the substance of it. The renal artery is about three inches long. Two inches remained in the corpse, one inch was attached to the kidney. The kidney left in the corpse was in an advanced state of Bright's Disease; the kidney sent me was in an exactly similar state. But what was of far more importance, Mr Sutton, one of the senior surgeons at the London Hospital, whom Gordon Brown asked to meet him and another surgeon in consultation, and who was one of the greatest authorities living on the kidney and its diseases, said he would pledge his reputation that the kidney submitted to them had been put in spirits within a few hours of its removal from the body thus effectually disposing of all hoaxes in connection with it.

However no report from Sutton, if there ever was one, has survived, and it has to be said that Major Smith’s veracity has often been called into doubt. Colleagues remembered him as being an entertaining and charming raconteur, but also commented on his ability to play fast and loose with the truth when it suited his story!

WHAT DR. BROWN REALLY THOUGHT

Indeed, a report in Echo on 19th October 1888 would appear to refute Major Smith's assertion:-

The "kidney incident" is regarded by Dr. Gordon Brown and the police as a hoax. Even if the kidney forwarded to Mr. Lusk, the chairman of the Vigilance Committee, should prove to be the half of a human organ - and there is medical discrepancy on this point - it could not have been the one extracted from the body of the murdered woman Eddowes. A medical man is said to have ventured to assert - relying upon a microscopic examination - that the organ showed indications of disease from drink. Sedgwick Saunders - Medical Officer of the City of London - accepting this at once disproves the theory that the organ could have belonged to Eddowes by stating that the right kidney of the woman was perfectly healthy and presumably the left would be in a similar condition.

WHAT DOCTOR SAUNDERS THOUGHT

A journalist from Echo had called on Dr. Sedgwick Saunders on the morning of 19th October 1888 to seek his opinion.

The subsequent article stated that Saunders:-

alluding at first to the report that a medical man declared the half kidney had belonged to a female, remarked:- "It is a pity some people have not the courage to say they don't know. You may take it there is no difference whatever between the male and female kidney. As for those in animals, they are similar. The cortical substance is the same, and the structure differs in shape. I think it would be quite possible to mistake it for a pig's. You may take it that the right kidney of the woman Eddowes was perfectly normal in its structure and healthy, and, by parity of reasoning, you would not get much disease in the left. The liver was healthy, and gave no indications that the woman drank. Taking the discovery of the half of the kidney, and supposing it to be human, my opinion is that it was a student's hoax. It is quite possible for any student to obtain a kidney for the purpose."

DR OPENSHAW RECEIVES A LETTER

So the general consensus at the time was that the kidney sent to Mr Lusk with the "From Hell" letter was nothing more than a sick practical joke.

However, its arrival injected yet another sinister twist into the Jack the Ripper mystery.

The fact that Dr Openshaw was being regularly quoted and discussed in the press inevitably attracted the attention of the Jack the Ripper hoaxers and, on the 29th October 1888, one of the pranksters decided it would be a good joke to honour Dr Openshaw with his very own missive:-

Old boss you was rite it was the left kidny i was goin to hoperate agin close to you ospitle just as i was going to dror mi nife along of er bloomin throte them cusses of coppers spoilt the game but i guess i wil be on the jobn soon and will send you another bit of innerds

Jack the Ripper

O have you seen the devle with his mikerscope and scalpul a-lookin at a kidney with a slide cocked up.

THE LETTER WRITERS

But, given the amount of coverage the Jack the Ripper correspondence such as the "Dear Boss" and "From Hell" letters generated, not to mention the amount of police time that was wasted in following them up, only a handful of authors were actually traced, and even fewer of them were actually punished. However, the writers that were traced do provide an intriguing glimpse of the type of person who would have taken the time and trouble to compose a Jack the Ripper missive.

WHO WROTE THE JACK THE RIPPER LETTERS