29 Nov 2023

One-armed Jack: Sarah Bax Horton on tracking down Jack the Ripper

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 29 November 2023

In the 135 years since Jack the Ripper's brutal murder of five women in London's Whitechapel, numerous individuals have been named as the culprit.

But a British author, Sarah Bax Horton, believes she has finally cracked the case saying the Ripper is a man police at the time were certain had committed the murders.

Between 31 August and 9 November 1888 five women - Mary Ann Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly - were found stabbed and mutilated.

Author image and book cover

Photo: Supplied

But despite some quite specific witness descriptions and a big police response, their murderer was never brought to justice.

In 2017, Horton was investigating her family history and stumbled upon the fact her great-great-grandfather was a police officer who spent time working on the case.

Her research led to medical records of a man called Hyam Hyams which had been sealed for 100 years.

Now her book One-armed Jack: Uncovering the Real Jack the Ripper not only posits that Hyams was the man responsible, but includes an analysis of the killer and a reconstruction of how Hyams could have committed the crimes.

The Jack the Ripper case is “probably the most debated case of murder of all time, and certainly the greatest unsolved mystery of all time,” she tells Kathryn Ryan.

The Ripper’s victims were all destitute women living in extreme poverty, she says.

“We can say quite firmly that they were destitute. When they were in funds, from small jobs, casual jobs, like selling small items on the street, like needles and threads, working as cleaners, and also working as casual sex workers, when they were in funds, they could afford to use the cheapest of lodging houses, whereby you paid by the night, when they were not in funds they slept on the streets.”

The police started to build up a good physical description of a man who accosted the women through witness descriptions that, she says, were remarkably consistent.

“The CID chief of the day Robert Anderson said there was no doubt whatsoever as to the identity of the criminal. And he gave some identifying features about a local East Ender living in the immediate vicinity of the murder locations, who was living on the poverty line, and seemed to be suffering from some sort of fits.”

Her prime suspect, Hyam Hyams, suffered from epilepsy, and was recorded as being violent for a period of days after each fit, she says

“Which also chimes in nicely with the periodic nature of these serial murders.”

Hyams was never charged because a key witness in the Catherine Eddowes murder refused to testify in court, she says.

Three men including a man called Joseph Lavender saw a man accosting Eddowes, she says.

“They saw them talking in the mouth of a very narrow alleyway that led into Mitre Square, where Kate Eddowes body was later found. And they were talking very intently together.

“The woman had her hand on his chest as they were talking. And the three men, Lavender among them, took one look at them, were very suspicious about what was going on, the man was probably accosting the woman for sex, and they moved swiftly on.”

Lavender is believed to have been the reluctant witness.

“He was believed to have identified the man in an identity parade. However, he refused to testify in court. So, the police never charged anyone with the crimes.”

She believes the police had the right man because his medical records line up with contemporary witness accounts, she says.

“It is Hyam Hyams and I say that because of the medical records, which were released 100 years after his death, so in 2013 and 2015, and they give very specific physical characteristics, which were reported by a number of the witnesses, and among them, we have a stiff arm.

Hyam Hyams broke his left elbow in February 1888, and was thereafter unable to fully bend or extend it.

“And he was also recorded as having an unusual walk, whereby he walked with bent knees, and he had asymmetric foot shuffling.

“So, he had an in very unusual way of walking. And this was noted by at least two of the witnesses at the times of Ripper murders.”

Hyams, who was never named by police, was held in various institutions around the time of the murders according to records, she says.

“In fact, there were three locations where police officers said the Ripper was held.

And it was Stepney workhouse in the East End of London. Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in North London, and Stone Lunatic Asylum, which is in Kent, which is diagonally across London from Colney Hatch and a distance of over 30 miles.

“Those were the three locations where the Ripper was held. And we know from his medical records that this is where Hyam Hyams was held, and they are quite an unusual set of locations.”

The nature of the murders have led some to believe the culprit had some medical knowledge, but this ignores common contemporary knowledge.

“In my book, I do argue the point about domestic butchery that the average person would have had a far greater knowledge and capability of butchery and knife skills than we do today.”

Hyams was a cigar maker, she says.

“That would have involved a great degree of dexterity with a knife and daily working with knives.”

Hyams was born and raised in the East End of Lomdon to a poor family, she says.

He married, and had two young children in 1888. And what happened was that in adulthood, he somehow developed severe epilepsy. And he became violent after his fits, and when he was admitted to medical facilities, his wife said that she lived in fear of his violence, and she had suffered from four miscarriages.

“She also said that he was delusional. He suffered from paranoia. He believed that his food was poisoned and he periodically refused to eat.

“He had severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms. So, he was an alcoholic, and this can cause hallucinations, and he had a terror of the police whom he believed before following him.”

Hyams was eventually declared insane, she says, and committed to Colney Hatch Asylum where he remained until his death in 1913.

This chimes with the Ripper murders which abruptly stopped in December 1988 when Hyams was committed, she says.