In the Shadow of Jack the Ripper: The Thames Torso Murders

Perhaps it isn’t a surprise that many other unsolved cases in Victorian London are little more than an afterthought. After all, in comparison to Jack the Ripper, these were all pretty tame, right?

Perhaps not.

There may have been another serial killer terrorizing the London area at the time, with his method of disposal being just as, if not more, morbid than the Ripper’s. While the true body count of the so-called Thames Torso Killer may never be known- not much information is available for some of these murders- he certainly left behind a terrifying legacy.

The Murders

The first murder possibly committed by the Thames Torso Killer dates all the way back to 1873, when a woman’s dismembered body was found scattered across the Battersea area in London. First thought to be a prank by a medical student involving a stolen cadaver (the crimes of Burke and Hare were a few decades in the past, but not forgotten), it turned out to be something much more sinister. The woman had been murdered, sustaining blunt force trauma to the back of the neck before having her throat fatally slit. She had been scalped, her nose had been cut off, and part of her chin and one cheek had been carefully cut out. Most curious of all was the manner in which the limbs were removed, which occurred shortly after the woman’s death. Her limbs were opened at the joints and removed intact with almost surgical precision, with only larger bones being sawed through. The victim was never identified and the case went on to be known as the ‘Battersea Mystery’.

Another woman was found dismembered in the River Thames a year later, yet not much is available on this murder. The remains consisted of a torso and one leg; the rest of the body was never found. Her spinal cord had been opened, although no information has been found on how she was dismembered or if a degree of anatomical or medical knowledge was necessary. Her remains had been covered in lime to advance decomposition; her cause of death could not be determined. While there is not enough information (aside from the location and that they were both dismembered) to link them, either one of the women could have been the first victim of the Thames Torso Killer.

cbipnsaturday20september1873

1873 newspaper illustration detailing the discovery of the first Battersea victim.

The murders subsided for a decade- either the person(s) behind the Battersea murders went dormant or a new killer emerged. Either way, in 1884 a woman’s torso showed up behind a near constantly patrolled armoury; the killer had apparently disposed of the remains during a changing of the guards. More body parts belonging to the same woman were found were found across the Tottenham Court area, including a skull and an arm with a tattoo on it, which suggested the victim was a prostitute. According to the coroner, she had been dismembered with precision.

Not much on the so-called “Tottenham Court Road Mystery” is available today, another murder was connected at the time to this case. In December of the same year, an arm and the feet of a woman were discovered wrapped in a parcel. According to a Dr. Jenkins, a surgeon who had conducted a review of the remains, she had been ‘skillfully dissected’. He also determined that they belonged to a different woman than the one that had been found mutilated earlier in the year.

Yet again, the killer went dormant. Unlike Jack the Ripper, whose spree was over in a matter of months, the Thames Torso Killer was more methodical. Not only did he take longer periods between kills, he took victims who were already on the fringes of society (as evidenced by the Tottenham Court victim) and made them even harder to identify. He also killed his victims at a secondary location before taking daring approaches to disposing them.

He resurfaced yet again in 1887. The lower torso of a woman was pulled from the Thames in the village of Rainham, wrapped in some sort of paper or fabric. Eventually more of the woman’s remains were found across London. Only her head and upper torso remained undiscovered. The police surgeon who examined the body, Dr. Thomas Bond, determined that while some medical knowledge was likely required to perform such a dismemberment, but it was not done for anatomical purposes. Despite the grisly disposal of the body, no signs of antemortem violence was discovered on the woman, and there was not enough to prove she was murdered. Because of this, the case was never investigated further.

Could this alleged victim actually be a prank by a medical student, as the first Battersea victim was originally thought to be? Possibly. As previously stated, her head and upper torso were never found. If she sustained trauma to the these areas (keep in mind that the 1873 victim, the only thus far whose cause of death had been proven, sustained trauma to her neck before having her throat slit), it would not be visible from the remains that were discovered.

The next year was the infamous year of Jack the Ripper’s killings, and it seemed the Torso Killer took some inspiration from him. The frenzy that the Ripper conjured up and the amount of press dedicated to him, compared to the minimal coverage dedicated to his crimes, perhaps motivated the Thames Torso Killer. Likely in September 1888, in the midst of the Ripper’s murders, the Torso Killer struck again, planting a woman’s torso, wrapped in paper,  where part of the now famous Scotland Yard was under construction (perhaps in lieu of the Tottenham Court victim, who was discovered in a heavily patrolled armoury). Her arms were later found in the River Thames. Dr. Thomas Bond, the same surgeon who conducted the autopsy of the Rainham victim, concluded that she had indeed been murdered, likely due to some sort of blood loss. He noted ‘several incisions’ around the woman’s shoulders to remove the arms, and, like the other victims, she had been dismembered with a degree of precision. A second doctor concluded that the killer likely had some sort of medical knowledge.

On June 4th, 1889, a woman’s body parts, wrapped in cloth, were found in the Thames. Unlike the other victims, her stomach was cut open, with her internal organs removed and her genitals mutilated. Some of the remains were found in Battersea Park, eerily close to the first victim.

The mutilation suggested that the woman had undergone an illegal abortion, with whoever performed it hiding what he had done after the woman died of complications. However, this theory was disproven. It also pointed that she may have been a Ripper victim- a letter signed ‘Jack the Ripper’ was delivered to the press. However, since there had definitely been some forged Ripper letters in the past, it didn’t carry much merit.

The woman was identified as a prostitute named Elizabeth Jackson. With the abortion theory unlikely and the disposal and dismemberment different from the Ripper’s, the motive or the cause of her death was never known.

But the Torso Killer was active in Battersea. His victims of choice were prostitutes. He wrapped his victims’ remains in paper or fabric and disposed many of them in the Thames. While the abdominal mutilation stands out in this case, the Torso Killer mutilated the face of the first Battersea victim. There is no information on Jackson’s cause of death or the level of skill necessary to perform her dismemberment, but there is enough evidence to tentatively label her as a Torso Killer victim.

In September of 1889, he struck again. London residents were finally moving on from the Ripper’s crimes, and the discovery of a woman’s torso, with arms attached, under a railway arch struck fear that he may have resurfaced. However, everything about this murder seems to show that there was still another serial killer on the loose.

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Newspaper illustration on the discovery of the ‘Pinchin Street Torso’.

Dubbed the ‘Pinchin Street Torso’ from the road she was found on, she is the only Torso Killer victim included in the Whitechapel muders (a series of women, including Jack the Ripper’s victims, murdered between 1888 and 1891 and considered as being Ripper victims at the time). However, as the case was investigated, it was determined that she was more than likely not a Ripper victim and similarities between this case and the Torso Killer’s victims were quickly pointed out. She was discovered by a patrolling constable, and was apparently placed at the scene when the constable was out of sight. No other parts of the woman’s body were found.

What is particularly odd about the case is that the coroner did not believe the killer had any anatomical knowledge, which contradicts the other torso cases. She was not wrapped in fabric or paper; instead a chemise was thrown over the body. The arms were also still attached to the body, as opposed to the other murders, where they had all been carefully removed. It could be that the killer had less time with this victim and therefore dismembered her more quickly. Or this murder could have been isolated, committed by someone trying to cover their tracks by emulating the Ripper or Torso Killer. Overall there are still enough similarities between the Pinchin Street Torso and the other Torso Killer victims to consider her a likely victim.

With this victim the Torso Killer’s reign of terror seemed to finally end. He may have been institutionalized or imprisoned for an unrelated crime. He may have skipped town. He may have passed away. Even if his spree spanned over two decades and he took the lives of up to eight women, there is still not enough information to draw conclusions on who the killer might have been. His medical knowledge suggested that he may have attended medical school or he learned the craft from someone else, possibly a family member. He could have attended public anatomy lectures where cadavers were dissected.

Yet we may never know what drove this man to kill. All but one of his alleged victims remain unidentified, and with the police and press dedicated to Jack the Ripper, important information on the killer may have been passed up or looked over. It seems a case that is now impossible to solve, yet it is an interesting and surprisingly little-known mystery.

Links of Interest

Article by Gerard Spicer

Quester Files article

The Murder of Elizabeth Jackson by Debra Arif

Dr. Thomas Bond’s report on the 1888 victim

1889 inquest into the Pinchin Street Torso

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