IT was an intriguing suggestion and one which sent a shiver down the spines of Daily Echo readers back in 1938.
Was Jack the Ripper still alive and living in Hampshire?
The hit BBC television series, Ripper Street, starring Matthew Macfadyen, Jerome Flynn and Adam Rothenberg, has attracted millions of viewers, sparking renewed interest in the period during the late 1880s when the mysterious and evil murderer, nicknamed Jack the Ripper, stalked the streets of London’s Whitechapel looking for victims.
Three-quarters of a century ago, the Daily Echo carried a regular column entitled, Murders Which Shocked the World, and, on one Saturday in September, 1938, highlighted the unsolved crimes of the notorious killer. At that time, there were many elderly people who would have been alive at the time of Jack the Ripper when he was on his murderous spree butchering women in the back alleys of the capital.
At the same time in Hampshire, a nine-year-old boy was also murdered and the killing bore many of the Ripper’s hallmarks.
Percy Knight Searle had been on an errand for his mother when he was found stabbed to death. According to the history books, a local magistrate in Havant had received a letter with a Portsmouth postmark a few days before Percy was killed, which was signed: “Yours, Jack the Ripper”. The letter told the police not to look for him in London because “I’m not there now”, suggesting he had moved his activities to the south coast.
Eventually, an 11-year-old youngster was charged with Percy’s murder but when the boy appeared before Winchester Assizes he was acquitted and the killing remains unsolved to this day.
At the height of Jack the Ripper’s reign of terror, the police surgeon, Dr Thomas Bond, considered by some to be the first offender profiler, examined the victims. He had spent his early years studying in Southampton with his uncle.
“Fifty years ago, in the year which saw the birth of the Southern Daily Echo, there began a series of savage murders which have made their mysterious author the most written-about murderer of all times,” said the Daily Echo.
“Jack the Ripper was seen but never caught; today his identity is as securely wrapped in mystery as it was when the police of an entire country were in full cry after him. Is he dead, or does he still live, to laugh in imbecile senility, at the cleverness with which he eluded the hue and cry?”
Seventy-five years ago, the Daily Echo suggested that if Jack the Ripper was a young man, still under 30 in 1888, it is possible he could still be alive.
“It is a fascinating, if disturbing thought that the arch-murderer of the century may be the benevolent old gentleman sitting next to you on the bus, or the taciturn octogenarian, reputed to have seen better times, who is the object of so much questioning interest when he emerges from his tiny back bedroom to draw his old age pension from the village Post Office,” conjectured the Daily Echo at a time when society was less sensitive than today.
“Or is he, maybe, the oldest inhabitant of some mental institution, an aged lunatic who is perfectly harmless unless he catches sight of a butcher’s knife, when his old eyes are lit up with a blaze of ravening fire which causes his guardians to remove it hastily from his presence?”
The first of the Ripper murders occurred very soon after the foundation of the Daily Echo, and provided the newspaper with its first big story. In Southampton, Daily Echo newsboys shouting “Another Whitechapel murder” had the papers almost snatched out of their hands by an excited public.
“All the victims were women of a certain class,” explained the Daily Echo. “This fact undoubtedly aided the murderer in committing his crimes under circumstances of privacy, which gave him every opportunity to complete his demoniacal work.
“But it is too late now for any reliable new facts to be revealed and the mystery of Jack the Ripper will probably remain unsolved for all time.”