What Were The Thames Torso Murders?
The Thames Torso Murders were a series of unsolved killings that took place in London between 1887-1889.
Thames Torso Murders: The First Torso, aka The Rainham Horror
Between May and June 1887 partially decomposed parts of a woman’s body were fished out the River Thames near Rainham, a town in the eastern part of Greater London near the Essex border.
Because the head was never recovered, the woman has never been identified and police were unable to ascertain a cause of death.
The body had been dissected neatly, which lead investigators to conclude that whoever had committed the dismemberment may have been familiar with cutting up animal carcasses and might even have had some level of anatomical training.
Thames Torso Murders: The Second Torso, aka The Whitehall Mystery
The following year, in September 1888, an arm washed up on the banks of the Thames at Pimlico, South London.
Initially dismissed in some press reports as a macabre joke by medical students, the arm’s significance became grimly apparent a month later when workmen building the new Metropolitan Police Headquarters at Scotland Yard, on the north side of the river near Westminster, found a bundle containing a female torso concealed in a recently-constructed vault, which was to form part of the building’s cellar.
The torso had been wrapped in black cloth, possibly from the victim’s own petticoat, and tied like a parcel with string. The victim’s uterus had been removed.
A dog search of the site later turned up a portion of the victim’s left leg, which had been buried nearby. The woman’s head and remaining limbs were never found.
Police surgeon Thomas Bond was able to match the arm found in the river a month earlier to the remains found at the building site, but despite various clues from the victim’s clothing her identity was never established.
Thames Torso Murders: The Third Torso, Elizabeth Jackson
24-year-old Elizabeth Jackson was eight-months pregnant at the time of her murder in late spring 1889.
On June 4, her torso was found washed up on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the Tower of London. Parts of her dismembered body were then recovered from the river over the course of several weeks in June, between Battersea and Bankside.
Like the other victims, Elizabeth’s head was never recovered, but police circulated a description of the dead woman’s clothes and distinguishing features. She was identified by friends from the scars on wrists and from her clothing, which had been purchased second-hand and were still labeled with the name of their previous owner.
She had been homeless and working as a prostitute at the time of her death, but although police were able to establish her movements in the days leading up to her disappearance and murder, no suspect was ever identified in relation to her killing.
Thames Torso Murders: The Fourth Torso, aka The Pinchin Street Torso
The final victim associated with the Thames Torso Murders crime sequence was found by a policeman in Whitechapel, underneath railway arch at Pinchin Street on September 10 1889.
As in first two torso murders, the victim was never identified.
Unlike in the earlier incidents, no other body parts were ever located. Investigators were certain that the victim had almost certainly been killed and dismembered elsewhere, but could establish nothing else about the events surrounding her death.
Were The Thames Torso Murders Committed By Jack The Ripper?
The Thames Torso Murders of 1887-1889 do share similarities with the Jack the Ripper killings, but the modus operandi across the two series was so different that police at the time rejected a connection.
Both the second torso and the later Ripper victims had had their uteri removed postmortem, and although most of the victims of the Thames Torso Murders were never identified the third victim, Elizabeth Jackson, was destitute and supporting herself through prostitution at the time of her death, like most of the Ripper victims.
However, there are also a number significant differences between the Ripper killings and the Thames Torso Murders.
Jack the Ripper killed four of his five canonical victims out on the street, with the brutality of his mutilations escalating over time. He made no attempt to transport his victims’ bodies to a secondary location, away from the scene of his murderous attacks, nor to disguise the identity of his victims. Although he slashed the throats of his victims, and in several cases mutilated his victims’ faces, he made no attempt to decapitate the women.
The Thames Torso Killer appears to have been more methodical in his mutilations and clearly did transport his victims to a secondary location postmortem. From the little we know about his victims, it appears he may have targeted well-built women in their twenties, whereas most of Jack’s known victims, with the exception of Mary Jane Kelly, were prematurely-aged women in their forties, their health worn down by hard lives and heavy drinking.
In each case in the Thames Torso Murders the victim’s head had been deliberated removed from the body and was never recovered, although whether this was a way for the killer to obscure his victims’ identity or for some other purpose cannot be known for sure.
A Freemasonic Cover Up?
Screenwriter and director Bruce Robinson claims that the real reason the Thames Torso Murders were never solved – and the reason why police refused to connect them to the Jack the Ripper murder series at the time – is because the high-ranking Freemasons, including Police Commissioner Charles Warren, conspired to hide the identity of the killer.
Robinson believes that the Jack the Ripper murders, the Thames Torso Murders and a number of other crimes were all the work of Freemason and successful songwriter, Michael Maybrick.
He claims that Maybrick’s true purpose in the slayings was to play an elaborate cat and mouse game with Commissioner Charles Warren, by committing a series of murders involving various allusions to Masonic mythology which his fellow Freemasons would then be obliged to cover-up.
How seriously you take Robinson’s ‘Masons Covering For Maybrick’ theory probably depends on how open you are to conspiracy theories more generally. Like all conspiracy theories it fits together extremely neatly, with little to disprove it… and absolutely nothing to substantiate it, apart from great storytelling and lots of invective against the dupes who just don’t buy it.
It’s a fun theory, but seems almost deliberately naive to the what we now know about these types of crimes and the individuals who tend to commit them.
The Earlier Thames Torso Murders
Bruce Robinson finds the idea that two serial murderers of destitute, working-class women, who both committed ritualistic mutilation of their victims’ remains, could be operating in the same city at the same time to be ridiculous.
Sadly however, the twentieth-century has shown us that it is entirely possible for multiple sexually-motivated killers to be active in the same geographical region at the same time, especially in an era during which both modern urban policing and forensic science were in their infancy.
And the inhabitants of late-Victorian London were no strangers to violent crime.
Indeed, fifteen years before the Thames Torso Murders, another unidentified, dismembered female torso had been fished from the Thames in a similarly shocking case.
This first ‘Thames Mystery’ or the ‘Battersea Mystery’ was uncovered on 5 September 1873, when the left portion of a woman’s torso recovered from the Thames at Battersea. The right part of the torso, as well as the victim’s lungs were recovered later the same day. Various other body parts were found in the days that followed, the most grisly of which was the victim’s face, flayed from her skull but with a portion of the scalp still attached, found floating downriver near Limehouse on 6 September.
This was later stretched over a wire frame and put on display in a public workhouse in the hope that the woman would be recognized. Crowds of people flocked to see the body, but the victim was never identified. The nameless woman was buried a few weeks after her body was found, but her face was kept in the workhouse in case she might be identified at a later date.
The following year a second unidentified female copse was found missing its head, both arms and one leg was found in the Thames near Putney Bridge. This corpse had been treated with lime to hasten decomposition.
It is not known whether these two earlier cases were connected, but neither murder was ever solved.
Thames Torso Murders: History, Mystery or Conspiracy?
Twenty-first century criminology has shown us that – contrary to modern myth – most ritualistic and sexually-motivated killers are not urbane sophisticates, capable of operating undetected at the highest levels of society, but are almost always pathetic deviants, often with a known criminal history and a record of violence against family members or intimate partners.
It is unlikely that either the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel or any of the Thames Torso Murders were the work of great criminal mastermind, nor is there evidence that police or the wider Victorian Establishment did not want the killer or killers caught.
In the Thames Torso Murders case, police used the techniques available to them at the time to attempt to trace the victims. For example, through meticulous detective work, they were able to trace the second victim’s garments to a manufacturer in Bradford… but despite these efforts they were working with almost none of the tools of modern policing and with little evidence to go on.
Even today police rely mainly on witness testimony, informants and confessions to solve violent crimes. Murders committed by strangers are notoriously difficult to solve.
In a sad coda to this story, in September 2001 the torso of a young, Nigerian boy was found in the Thames, and is believed by police to have been trafficked to this country for use in a ritual murder. Despite massive publicity, the child has never been formally identified and his killing remains unsolved.