One of the more bizarre aspects of the Jack the Ripper case is the number of letters that the police, newspapers, authorities and notable citizens received from anonymous members of the public either offering information on the best way to apprehend the killer, or else purporting to come from the murderer himself.
With the passage of over 100 years since the Whitechapel murders it is difficult to put an exact figure on the number of Jack the Ripper Letters that were sent by ordinary men and women who found the allure of the murders difficult to resist and who, egged on by the huge amount of publicity being generated by the crimes, developed an irresistible urge to inject themselves into the police investigation, either by offering advice on how the miscreant could be brought to justice, or else taunting the police by claiming to be the killer and telling them where he was going to strike next and what he would do to his next victim.
On 20th October 1888 the Illustrated Police news reported that the police had looked into the provenance of over 700 letters. These can, of course, be broken down into letters that were offering suggestions as to how the murderer might be apprehended, or even information that might have been intended to actually help the police bring the killer to justice.
Some of the missives were malicious in intent - the result, perhaps, of a neighbourly or spousal feud. But many of them - maybe as many as 300 - were prank letters written by people who saw the murders of five East End prostitutes as a hugely entertaining public melodrama in which they just had to have a part - albeit, in the majority of cases, anonymously.
On the 24th September, the closing day for the inquest into the death of Annie Chapman an unknown author sent a letter to Sir Charles Warren, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. There is nothing that suggests that the police actually took this missive seriously. Indeed, crank letters were common with high profile cases that had received extensive press coverage. The significance of this letter, however, is that it was a precursor to hundreds of such letters that would bring the police investigation into the Jack the Ripper Murders close to meltdown. The letter bore a LONDON. S. E postmark and was headed "on her majesty's service." It read:-
I do wish to give myself up I am in misery with nightmare I am the man who committed all these murders in the last six months...I am a horse slauterer...I have found the woman I wanted that is chapman and I done what I called slautered her but if any one comes I will surrender...
The letter contained crude illustrations one showing a coffin and the other showing a knife, both of which were drawn in heavy black ink. Beneath the knife the letter's author had written:-
...this is the knife that I done these murders with it is a small handle with a large long blade sharpe both sides
The police, no doubt, were quick to dismiss this letter as, what it undoubtedly was, a hoax. But what they could not have envisioned, as they filed this prank missive away, was that - somewhere in London - another prankster was sitting down to compose another letter, and this letter would not only have huge ramifications on their investigations but would also give the killer a name that would ensure that the gruesome street pantomime that the murders were rapidly becoming would run and run.
Indeed, it is probable that the unknown author himself didn't realise the impact his missive would have as he scrawled the - now infamous - first words of his letter "Dear Boss".
Having treated his readers to a barrage of gloating gruesomeness, and warning them that he wanted to "...get to work right away if I get a chance", he gleefully ended his missive with a flourish as he signed it "Yours truly Jack the Ripper"
He then dropped it into the post and sat back to see whether his Jack the Ripper Letter would be taken seriously.
Two days later, his letter was opened and read by the staff at the Central News Agency and a legend was well and truly born.